DENVER -- In the wake of a Contact7 investigation, a growing number of people are coming forward to report spending thousands of dollars on stem cell injections that have failed to relieve any of their chronic pain.
Stem cell injections -- not derived from embryos, but other sources like donated amniotic tissue -- are not covered by insurance and are not FDA-approved to treat conditions like orthopedic pain. But they're marketed aggressively in newspapers and magazines, and on television, as an alternative to traditional medical procedures like surgery.
Contact7 Investigates conducted a series of undercover shoots in the last several months that exposed the aggressive stem cell sales pitches done in-person at event centers and hotel ballrooms.
Surgeons, doctors, and regenerative medicine researchers routinely say stem cell injections are not yet scientifically proven to regrow cartilage as the sales pitches claim. They say the injections may offer temporary anti-inflammatory benefits, but little else long-term.
Contact7 recently spoke with two women who said they received stem cell injections more than a year ago and have never experienced any pain relief in their lower backs.
"I have stenosis," Agnes "Ty" Barrett said of the extreme pain she's endured along her spine for years.
The mother and grandmother said she had tried everything to relieve the pain, including acupuncture, rubs, patches and spinal decompression. She then tried stem cell injections from a clinic called Denver Spine and Posture, which is now called West2North Medical Solutions.
"And he said he definitely could help me with my spinal stenosis," Barrett said of Dean Jones, the licensed chiropractor who operates the clinic.
Jones and his staff routinely host stem cell seminars. Contact7 attended one of them where one of his workers said the office not only treats orthopedic issues with stem cells, but also other medical conditions like Alzheimer's.
"We now take this little syringe thing and go up through the nose," the worker told a roomful of people at the seminar. "It is one of the very few procedures out on the market right now that can break the blood-brain barrier, and help to regenerate brain tissue."
Contact7 had attended the seminar undercover with an orthopedic surgeon, Ian Weber, who said he's treating an increasing number of patients who spend thousands of dollars on failed stem cell injections.
"This is an absolute shakedown in which you're taking advantage of people's high hopes," he told Contact7.
Barrett and her daughter, Kathie, feel the same. They spent roughly $10,000 on stem cell injections at West2North and they're not alone.
"I never felt any better," patient Sandy Dawson told Contact7. She also spent roughly $10,000 on injections for back pain.
"They never said, 'Oh, it might not ever work.' They did not say that," she said.
Contact7 experienced the same in an undercover capacity during a free consultation several months ago. A patient educator - not a licensed health care worker - suggested Contact7's producer, who's in her mid-30s and doesn't have chronic pain, get stem cell injections in her knees at a cost of roughly $10,000.
Jones would not speak on-camera to address concerns from his former patients and the stem cell industry on the whole because he believes the media has villainized it across the country. But he said over the phone that he stands by his stem cell procedures. He later agreed to take part in a Denver7 "360" story about the industry at a later date, where he said he'll find various "mentors" and experts to back up his claims.
In the meantime, the Barretts and Dawson believe prospective stem cell patients need to be wary of stem cell injections.
"I would say don't do it," Kathie Barrett said.
"I should have known better because it's not like I'm uneducated, but I was desperate and I did it," Dawson said.
"I just feel like we were taken advantage of," Ty Barrett said.
In the last two months, Jones came to an agreement with the North Dakota Attorney General's Office to not inject stem cell products that have not met FDA approval in the state.