by Susie Steimle and Abigail Sterling
SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — A growing number of elderly and disabled Americans are looking for relief from pain in the promising new field of stem cell therapy. But many clinics are offering therapies that have not yet been shown to be safe or effective.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is trying to increase its ability to oversee these clinics, hundreds of them are operating with no oversight whatsoever.
Jason Gregory, a former Jacuzzi salesman, is one person now selling stem cell injections. We met him on his way to host a free dinner seminar at the Buttercup Grill in Walnut Creek to promote a therapy that the invitation said can treat everything from knee pain and arthritis to sore joints to difficulty sleeping.
“Some doctors are saying this is really dangerous,” we asked him. His response: “Well, again, I am not a doctor, I am a case manager.”
A steady stream of people showed up at the seminar, including Audrey Moy, a retired consumer fraud investigator with the district attorney’s office. She is now a volunteer with KPIX 5 ConsumerWatch, and was curious to find out how the therapy might help a pain in one of her legs.
Moy said the presenter explained the stem cells come from human umbilical cord tissue.
“The whole emphasis he put was that it’s great,” said Moy. “They make promises that I don’t think in my opinion they can fulfill, saying we have never had any bad comments, everyone has had great success.”
Moy said at the end of the seminar came the pitch for a free consultation at the East Bay Health and Wellness Center in Walnut Creek. So Moy signed up.
Moy said she never saw a doctor at the wellness center. First, a chiropractor made her do a few exercises. Gregory, the seminar presenter, then arrived and asked her a few medical questions and told Moy she qualified for an $8,000 dollar stem cell injection to be paid upfront.
“It’s a clever mixture of good science and hokum,” said Kevin McCormack, spokesman for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the state agency that funds stem cell research at institutions and companies throughout California.
Stem cell therapy can potentially treat some of the most devastating diseases. But it’s still a relatively new field. All FDA-approved clinical trials have to register on the National Institutes of Health website. East Bay Health and Wellness Center is not on the list.
McCormack says there are hundreds of unapproved clinics popping up all over the country, selling stem cell injections for thousands of dollars with no oversight.
“They treat it like it’s magical, like it’s Harry Potter world where you wave a wand over these cells and say repair them, stick it in your body and it fixes everything you want,” said McCormack. “This isn’t magic, it’s science.”
One woman in Florida recently went blind from an unapproved stem cell treatment, in which stem cells harvested from her belly were injected into her eyes. More recently 12 people got infections from contaminated umbilical cord stem cell products from a lab in San Diego.
The East Bay Health and Wellness Center did not respond to our repeated requests for an interview or statement.
So how are the stem cell injections working? We asked Gregory: “We’ve heard some concerns from people that there is actually no medical benefit to this type of stem cell therapy. What do you say to that?”
“Well I think it’s pretty much an elective type of thing for anybody,” Gregory responded. “I have had improvement, I have had family that had improvement.”
“So what would you tell people who are worried about the fact that this is not FDA approved?” we asked him.
“Well I am really not prepared to comment on that at this point right now,” replied Gregory.
Marketing unapproved stem cell treatments is not illegal, but giving the injections without the oversight of a medical director is. East Bay Health and Wellness’ case manager told us they do have a medical director. But when we asked to speak to that person we never got an answer, or even a name.
For more advice on stem cell therapies and how to sort out the good from the bad, potential patients can check out the International Society for Stem Cell research’s website.