Con men used to travel town to town hawking medical remedies said to be made of Chinese snakes. Snake oil was useless and dangerous. So the FDA was created to put a stop to it and other food and drug scams.
But, today, quack medicine has never been bigger. In the 21st century, snake oil has been replaced by bogus therapies using stem cells. Stem cells may offer cures one day, but medical charlatans on the Internet are making outrageous claims that they can reverse the incurable, from autism to multiple sclerosis to every kind of cancer.
Desperate people are being bilked out of their life's savings.
We've been looking into this surging crime and we found there is no better window on how it works than the practice of a man who calls himself "doctor," a man named Lawrence Stowe.
Stowe has been unaware that, lately, some of his patients have been working with 60 Minutes.
Full Segment: 21st Century Snake Oil Part 1
Full Segment: 21st Century Snake Oil Part 2
Web Extra: The Promise of Stem Cell Treatment
Web Extra: A Warning About Stem Cell Fraud
Web Extra: Living with Lou Gehrig's Disease
One of those patients is Steven Watters, a college administrator in Lufkin, Texas, who, six months ago, received maybe the worst diagnosis imaginable: he has ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
About 30,000 Americans have ALS at any given time. And like Watters, they all will die, most within five years, as their nervous system gradually disconnects from their muscles.
"Everything just takes a little longer. I just set things up to where it requires minimal, manual effort," Watters told correspondent Scott Pelley. "Just handling personal hygiene is difficult - teeth brushing, flossing, very difficult, time consuming. So you just make the adaptations that you can and go on."
Eventually Watters will be able to move nothing but his eyes.
The same fate is ahead of Michael Martin who also has ALS. Martin has nearly lost any ability to speak, and very soon he won't be able to walk.
"I wonder what it was that your regular doctor back home told you about your disease and what your prospects were?" Pelley asked Martin.
"He said I had about two years," he replied.
No patient has ever been cured of ALS, and no patient has ever seen the symptoms reversed, even temporarily. But, still, desperate people find themselves drawn to a place that promotes the impossible: Stowe Biotherapy in La Mesa, Calif., near San Diego, which bills itself as a "medical oasis."
We asked a multiple sclerosis patient to go in with a hidden camera to hear Larry Stowe's pitch for his miracle treatment.
Stowe told our MS patient that he can reverse her disease with his program of herbs and vitamins to boost the immune system, custom vaccines and stem cell injections. Medical experts say it's nonsense but it's the same pitch that we secretly recorded again and again as Stowe claimed to reverse cancer, ALS, MS, Parkinson's disease and more.
"We're the only ones who's been able to get any body that's down here back up to here, and they stay back up to here. If we were a major pharmaceutical drug company, you know, we'd be talking about all of our research associating getting Nobel Prizes in medicine and things of that nature," Stowe said.
Larry Stowe is not a medical doctor. He claims two PhDs, but we found he only has one in chemical engineering. He had a career at Mobil Oil and holds patents in the oil industry.
But by the 1980s Stowe had taken a strange turn into pseudoscience. For a time, he promoted something called Eon Water which, he said, slowed the aging process. And by 2003, he had created the Stowe Foundation to advocate unproven stem cell therapies.
Michael Martin, one of the ALS patients helping with our story, had heard about Stowe from a friend. And before we ever met Martin, he had already given Stowe a down payment of $47,000 to start the treatment.
"When Dr. Stowe said that he could reverse this disease with stem cells, you thought what?" Pelley asked.
"Oh, I wanted to believe," Martin replied.
How does Stowe make believers of the desperate? We wanted to see.