Quack convicted: Bovine stem cells, practicing medicine without a license, and a guilty plea

On Friday, October 19, Kathleen Ann Helms, also known as Catherine Bright-Helms, pleaded guilty to four counts of conspiracy to practice medicine without a license. Prior to her arrest Helms ran BrightHouse Wellness Center, an alternative medicine clinic with locations in Encinitas, California and Oak Park, Illinois. Sentencing is scheduled for December 3.*

Helms came to the attention of law enforcement authorities after two individuals treated by Helms filed complaints with the Medical Board of California. FBI investigators later joined the investigation and both the FBI and investigators with the Medical Board of California were involved in Helms’ arrest.

According to a court affidavit, Helms incorrectly diagnosed her patients with Lyme disease and then administered to them a combination of bovine stem cells and dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). At least four individuals received from Helms injections of bovine stem cells and infusions of dimethyl sulfoxide.

According to a press release issued by the FBI’s San Diego Division, one woman who sought care from Helms suffered life-threatening complications. Following Helms’ advice, the person travelled to Tijuana, Mexico and had a peripherally inserted central catheter line (PICC) inserted. There were complications with the PICC and the woman had to make three return visits to Tijuana. Once the complications were resolved the woman returned to Encinitas and was seen by Helms at BrightHouse Wellness. The so-called “treatment” she received included bovine stem cell injections into the ill woman’s abdomen and IV infusion of four bags of dimethyl oxide. In total, Helms’ victim received stem cell injections and dimethyl oxide infusions on four occasions. Following the fourth treatment the woman had to be rushed to a local emergency room. Suffering from organ failure, she was admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit. She received care at the hospital for six weeks and was then transferred to a skilled nursing facility followed by an assisted living facility.

The BrightHouse Wellness website indicates that Helms represented herself to patients as a naturopathic doctor. The site, no longer active but still available in Google cache, states, “At the center, you will be seen by Dr. Catherine Bright-Helms N.D., who will work closely with you and/or your family to bring you to the fullest stage of health possible. For more information about the ‘doc’, please visit her page….” The site adds, “it’s Sometimes hard to decipher fact from quack.  We hope that this site might change all that for you.”

Widely associated with clinics claiming to offer the latest biomedical innovations, “stem cells” are also marketed by some alternative medicine clinics promoting stem cell procedures as “natural” interventions that purportedly are safer and more effective than pharmaceuticals, surgery, and other treatments. Helms’ conviction, while it does not appear to signal increased national interest by regulatory authorities and law enforcement officials in better monitoring and investigating alternative medicine clinics marketing “natural” stem cell therapies, nonetheless reveals the harms that can befall patients who receive unapproved “stem cell” products alone or in combination with other interventions from individuals unqualified and unlicensed to practice medicine. Helms’ guilty plea has already attracted interest from lawyers, with one law firm using Helms’ conviction to draw attention to its expertise in proving naturopathic malpractice. Whether or not this particular legal practice draws individuals claiming they were harmed by negligent physicians or naturopaths, there will be more cases in which individuals seek legal remedies after being harmed as a result of receiving unapproved stem cell-based products or other dubious interventions.

*Some reports state that Helms is sentenced to three years in jail.

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