"60 MINUTES" CAMERAS EXPOSE MEDICAL CONMEN WHO PREY ON DYING VICTIMS - SUNDAY ON CBS
Researcher Warns of More than 200 Clinics that Make False Claims on Stem Cells
Capitalizing on the promise of stem cells to revolutionize medicine and cure almost any disease, modern day snake oil salesmen are promising to treat the incurable and charging tens of thousands of dollars, 60 MINUTES reports. A Scott Pelley investigation using hidden cameras exposed one conman, Lawrence Stowe, who promised patients with Lou Gehrig's disease he could reverse their terminal illnesses and keep them out of wheelchairs using a cocktail of herbs and vitamins to boost the immune system, custom vaccines, and stem cell injections in the spinal cord. Pelley's report will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES, Sunday, April 18 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
Lou Gehrig's disease victim Michael Martin made a down-payment of $47,000 to Stowe. "I wanted to believe," he tells Pelley. Martin agreed to participate in a hidden camera session with Stowe. The proper name for his ailment is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
Producers from 60 MINUTES set up hidden cameras in Martin's Houston home and enlisted another ALS sufferer, Steven Watters, to pose as a potential patient for Stowe's treatments. Stowe comes to the house and is taped answering "yes" or "yeah" to Watter's questions about whether Stowe's treatment was permanent and if he will be able to exercise again. Watters then asks if the stem cell therapy will keep him out of a wheelchair and Stowe responds, "Yeah, oh yeah. Absolutely...we've had a number of ALS patients that we got out of their wheelchairs." No ALS patient has ever been shown to experience such a reversal in recorded medical history.
Asked what that permanent fix will cost, Stowe lays it all out for the dying man, a total of $125,000. "Because it's $50,000 for phase one, the stem cell transplant is going to run you around $25,000 and then, we do follow-up, a, therapy after that to make sure the results hold and that's another $50,000," says Stowe, while 60 MINUTES cameras secretly tape the encounter. Watch an excerpt.
60 MINUTES submitted Stowe's protocol to a number of top stem cell researchers and neurologists. They concluded there is no scientific basis for Stowe's "therapy." Professor Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology told Scott Pelley, "If somebody squirted some stem cells into the spinal cord of an ALS patient and they stood up out of their wheelchair and had a permanent fix, that would be miraculous."
Stem cell biologist Larry Goldstein and researcher Douglas Sipp are on a task force set up by the International Society for Stem Cell Research to target unproven stem cell therapies. Sipp has been tracking bogus stem cell clinics as they proliferate on the Internet. "I would say the growth is explosive and I've been able to come up with more than 200 clinics that are offering some version of stem cells, for some type of medical condition for which there is really no good evidence that the stem cells would be either safe or effective," says Sipp.
The practitioners in these clinics range from "those doing, essentially, badly designed, uncontrolled human medical experiments for profit and then at the other end of the spectrum, you just have thieves who are preying on the sick and their families," he tells Pelley. Where does Stowe's operation fall in that spectrum? "He might as well be sticking his hands in the pockets of those people and taking the money out... That's how bad I think it is," Goldstein says.
Stowe is not a medical doctor. He claims two PhDs, though he has only one in chemical engineering. After early work in the oil industry, he began promoting "Eon water" as an anti-age product. He started the Stowe Foundation to advocate unproven stem-cell therapies in 2003. The therapy for Martin and Watters was to take place in Mexico, performed by Dr. Frank Morales, who, 60 MINUTES learned, once submitted a fake medical credential.
60 MINUTES followed Watters and Martin to Monterrey, Mexico, where another hidden camera encounter is arranged. Morales and Stowe were expecting to see cash payments from Watters and Martin for stem cell treatments. Instead, Pelley comes into the room and announces they're on 60 MINUTES. In the ensuing conversation, taped for Sunday's broadcast, both Stowe and Morales are caught in lies. Morales leaves before Stowe, who continues to talk for two hours before Pelley cuts off the interview. Stowe then turns to Martin, from whom he has already received $47,000 and who has revealed himself to be working with 60 MINUTES. "We'll keep in touch because I can tell you, you know what's going to happen, if you don't take some kind of aggressive action." No one has ever recovered from ALS; no drug has ever stopped the slow death from paralysis it causes.
60 MINUTES has learned the FDA is now investigating Stowe and Morales.