A Skeptical Look at David Steenblock, D.O.
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
David Steenblock, D.O. operates a clinic in Mission Viejo, California, which claims to "give the maximum amount of recovery possible for stroke and traumatic brain injury." The facility, now called Dr. Steenblock's Clinic, operated as the Brain Theraputics Medical Clinic from 2001 through 2007 and the Health Restoration Medical Center before that. According to its Web site, the clinic provides:
A Comprehensive Neuro-Rehab Program utilizing Hyperbaric Oxygen, Pulsed Magnetic Therapy, Acupuncture, External Counterpulsation, as well as Nutritional / Metabolic Therapies. Where brain damage is located determines which nerves, muscles, organs and tissues will be affected. But we are also a "brain and body" therapeutics medical clinic, treating the whole person, striving to find the underlying cause of your disease, then addressing it with safe, non-invasive, effective therapies backed by scientific and clinical proof .
The site also states:
He has devoted many years to research in the fields of biochemistry, pathology, nerve and muscle physiology, cardiovascular disease and other diseases of aging. He has also written numerous scientific articles and is a contributing editor to several national consumer health magazines .
Steenblock's StemCell.md Web site states:
When Dr. Steenblock isn't with a patient, he is at his computer investigating new research or reading through stacks of medical journals that come in on a daily basis. Dr. Steenblock has an extensive library and two research assistants. What he doesn't know, he quickly and avidly investigates—and what he does know, he gives to the world.
No other physician in the U.S. has been on the forefront of alternative medicine for these past thirty years and continues to stay on the forefront, against all odds, in advocating safe, effective and natural treatments for brain injuries and chronic degenerative disease .
What treatment does he offer? According to a biographical sketch on the Cancer Control Society's Web site:
Dr. Steenblock uses one marrow stem cell therapy, hard chamber hyperbaric oxygen, intravenous glutathione, chelation of all types, pulsed electromagnetic therapies, external counterpulsation, intermittent high altitude therapies, spinal disc decompression, nutritional therapies, etc. for the prevention and treatment of stroke, brain injuries, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, ALS, macular degeneration, cerebral palsy, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, kidney and liver disorders, diabetes, anti-aging, etc. 
Some people who read the above statements might conclude that Steenblock is a great scholar who offers the latest, most effective, and most innovative treatments for many serious diseases. That's certainly not how I perceive him. What counts is not the amount of time spent reading journals, but the ability to integrate the information into an evidence-based practice. Steenblock, however, includes treatments that have no scientifically plausible rationale and have not been demonstrated to be effective. What's more, some of the conditions he claims to treat do not have any proven effective treatment. Despite all of his research and alleged treatment success, the only scientific journal articles I could find under his name in the Medline database were three papers about blood clotting in dogs and guinea pigs published in 1968 when he was working as a research assistant in a biochemistry lab.
The Stroke Doctor Web site indicates that Steenblock's clinic uses "Biomeridian Assessment" to "formulate a comprehensive support program of therapies and supplementation customized to your unique needs" and says that device also helps to "stay on track and measure progress." Proponents of such devices claim that they measure disturbances in the body's flow of "electro-magnetic energy" along "acupuncture meridians." Actually, they are little more than fancy galvanometers that measure electrical resistance of the patient's skin when touched by a probe. The device emits a tiny direct electric current that flows through a wire from the device to a metallic cylinder that the patient holds in one hand. A second wire is connected from the device to a probe, which the operator touches to "acupuncture points" on the patient's other hand or a foot. This completes a low-voltage circuit and the device registers the flow of current. The information is then relayed to a computer screen that provides an interpretation of the findings and suggests products the patient can take. The Biomeridian and similar devices provide no useful information about the patient's diagnosis or treatment .
Questionable Treatment Claims
The treatments that seem to interest Steenblock most are hyperbaric oxygen therapy and stem cell therapy. His Web sites describe him as "America's foremost 'Stroke Doctor'" and the "Number One Leading Expert in Stem Cell Therapies in the United States."
According to an article on the Stroke Doctor Web site:
Strokes are caused by a lack of oxygen to a part of the brain. Long term effects are caused by the continued lack of oxygen, the swelling of brain tissue and the accumulation of calcium within the damaged nerve cells. Dr. Steenblock's neuro-rehab program is designed to bring oxygen back to these starved cells, reduce swelling, and provide the nutrients needed to help the cells remove their waste and restore normal metabolic function .
It is true that strokes are caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. However, there is no scientific evidence that increasing oxygen delivery to the brain after an acute episode is over can stimulate cells to regenerate.
Steenblock's sites list more than 100 diseases that they claim stem cell transplantation can treat. Stem cell therapy is certainly a promising area for research [7,8]. Stem cells have the ability to give rise to many specialized cells in an organism. Certain types of stem cells are already used to restore blood-forming and immune system function after high-dose chemotherapy for some types of cancer, and several other restorative uses have been demonstrated . The broadest potential application is the generation of cells and tissues that could be used to repair or replace damaged organs. If scientists can learn how to control stem cell conversion into new, functionally mature cells, doctors might be able to cure many diseases for which therapy is currently inadequate. However, Steenblock's claims go way beyond what is likely and should be regarded with great skepticism.
Questionable Research Claims
Steenblock has been closely associated with Fernando Ramirez Del Rio, M.D., who operates a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, where he administers stem cell therapy. Steenblock has also been associated with Anthony G. Payne, who worked for him as a "staff nutritional counselor" in 1990 and and as a "senior science writer" at the Steenblock Research Institute (SRI) from March 2003 through June 2007 . During most of this period, according to Payne, Steenblock did not administer stem cell treatment himself but referred patients to Payne to discuss options . Most of the patients would then to go to Ramirez, who followed Steenblock's protocols and retained the SRI to collect and analyze patient responses.
The book Umbilical Cord Stem Cell Therapy, which Payne and Steenblock co-authored, was published in 2006 and describes some of their findings . That same year, Ramirez, Steenblock, and Payne wrote an article about eight children with cerebral palsy (ages 3-12) whom Ramirez had treated with stem cell injections into fatty tissue under the skin near their umbilicus (belly button). Their article was published in Medical Hypotheses and Research, a journal not listed in Medline . This report states that parents completed questionnaires before the treatment and at 1, 3 and 6 months afterwards and that the children's own therapists submitted submitted evaluations to SRI for analysis. It further states that all eight children showed clinically significant improvement, but it does not tabulate the outside therapists' observations. Although its findings are interesting, the report should not be promoted as evidence of effectiveness. At the very least, a study of this type should include complete physical evaluations before and afterwards by independent observers. It is also important to know whether any improvement could have occurred as a result of other treatment or the natural history of the ailment. That would require a comparison between treated and untreated children.
Near the end of 2006, Steenblock began administering stem cell therapy himself by withdrawing fluid from the bone marrow and injecting it back to the patient intravenously. In a 2007 lecture delivered in the United Kingdom, he stated that he had originated this method and that any doctor could use it . The StemCell.md site has an interesting testimonial for "Emily," a 16-year-old girl who underwent this procedure.
- Emily had right-sided disability and spasticity since birth.
- She was treated by removing 300 milliliters of bone marrow from her hip and giving it back to her intravenously.
- Five hours after the raw bone marrow infusion, she was able to move her right toe for the first time in her life.
- That evening, she was able to walk, stepping heel to toe on her right foot.
- By the next day, she was able to straighten out and use her right arm and wrist for the first time.
- Within three weeks, she was also able to move her fingers on her right hand and hold a cup for the first time.
- She has continued to improve on her walking rhythm and is also running .
In an videotaped interview recorded the day after her stem cell treatment, Emily and her mother give a glowing report . Her appearance, however, is unpersuasive. Although they talk about how she can unclench her right hand, straighten her right elbow, and raise her right arm—all of which they say she could never do before the treatment—she demonstrates none of this during the recording. Moreover, the idea that transfused stem cells are responsible for such rapid improvements is questionable. If cells are actually removed from the marrow and injected intravenously into a person, they would simply not gravitate toward and fix damaged organs in a single day or so. Many, in fact, would be filtered out by the spleen, circulate back to the marrow, and/or simply die. The Web site does not say when Emily's treatment took place, but the video was uploaded to YouTube on August 13, 2009. It seems probable to me that her testimonial is an expression of wishful thinking.
Payne readily acknowledges that stem cells could not be directly responsible for an improvement within hours, but he speculates about other mechanisms .
Steenblock Research Institute
The Steenblock Institute, founded in 2003, is located in San Clemente, California, a few miles from Steenblock's office. The Stem Cell Therapies Web site describes it as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation "dedicated to educating the public about safe and effective alternatives for difficult medical cases."  The site promotes a book Steenblock wrote and solicits donations for four projects that it describes as (a) neurological research (cerebral palsy, stroke, TBI, ALS, MS, Down's syndrome), (b). eye research (macular degeneration), (c) cardiovascular research (heart disease, atherosclerosis), and (d) cancer research. However, at this point, it does not look like the money SRI raises will result in any meaningful research. The institute's tax returns show a total income of only $23,538 in 2006, $3,162 in 2007, and $17,461 in 2008 [18-20]. The returns state that its projects included (a) organizing research on stem cell therapies, (b) creating a Web site on umbilical-derived stem cells, (c) writing a book, and (d) answering individual inquires about umbilical cord stem cell therapy. The 2008 tax return lists "advertising and promotion expense" of $20,954. In 2013, the California charities database contained no filings after 2008 and listed the institute's income and assets as $0.
Steenblock has been disciplined by his state licensing board four times and is now serving 5 years' probation.
In 1991, he was charged with negligence in connection with two patients he had treated . In 1994, the case was settled with a stipulation under which he agreed to serve five years of probation, pay $10,000 for costs, and take extra continuing education courses in pharmacology, medical charting, and ethics .
In 1997, Steenblock was charged with violating his probation by not paying the $10,000 assessment and by using three unlicensed "physical therapy assistants" to administer patient services . (In 1997, the employees were convicted of practicing physical therapy without a license.) In 2000, after Steenblock had paid the $10,000 and hired a licensed physical therapist to supervise the others, the board assessed another $3,500 toward costs but decided not to penalize him for "aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of physical therapy."  The proceedings also had the effect of extending his probation for three months.
In January 2008, the Osteopathic Medical Board of California charged David A. Steenblock, D.O. with gross negligence, repeated negligent acts, excessive treatments, failure to maintain adequate records, and falsely representing his credentials. The complaint stated that he:
- Charged a 77-year-old stroke patient more than $26,000 for services that included 87 sessions of hyperbaric oxygen, 84 physical therapy treatments, 20 intravenous treatments, and 8 testosterone injections.
- Retained Medicare payments that should have been refunded to the patient.
- Failed to document an initial evaluation, any treatment rationale, or the patient's responses to treatment.
- Falsely represented that he is board-certified by the American Board of Family Practice, even though he had not been certified by that board since December 1984.
- Represented that he is certified by the American Board of Chelation Therapy, even though that board is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties and did not list him among its members .
In August 2009, the Board concluded that Steenblock had engaged in gross negligence, repeated negligent acts, and excessive prescribing of treatment and had failed to maintain adequate records. The board also concluded that Steenblock had improperly advertised himself as board certified. He was placed on probation for five years, ordered to take courses in medical ethics and recordkeeping, and assessed $25,166.60 for the cost of investigation and enforcement . During the deliberations, the lack of efficacy of hyperbaric oxygen treatment for stroke victims was not considered.
In 2011, the board filed a petition to revoke Steenblock's probation. The petition stated that in early 2010, Steenblock had notified the board that he had not complied with his probation terms because he had challenged the a prior board decision in San Francisco Superior Court and expected the court would stay his probation until the matter was resolved. However, the court did not issue a stay and, even though the Board notified Steenblock that he was required to comply with probation, he did not make reports, enroll in the required continuing education courses, or pay the $25,166.60 . In February 2013, the board suspended Steenblock's license for 60 days, ordered him to pay the $25,166 within that time period, and renewed his probation for another five years during which he is required to comply with the terms of the 2009 order .
In February 2013, Alexander Thermos, D.C., D.O. joined the staff of Steenblock's clinic staff and was represented on its Web site as an "expert on the clinical use of stem cells." Like Steenblock, Thermost has an extensive regulatory history:
- In 1997, when Thermos practiced in Nebraska, the Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services disciplined him for prescribing controlled substances after his controlled substances registration had expired.
- In 1999, after Thermos had applied for a license in Colorado, the Colorado board granted his license but entered into a stipulation under which Thermos agreed to be placed on probation for five years, during which he was required to have psychiatric treatment .
- In 2007, the board sent a letter warning Thermos that it had received complaints that he had "consistently refused" to provide a number of his patents with a copy of their medical records and that he was required to do so .
- n 2011, Thermos agreed to relinquish his Colorado osteopathic medical license. The stipulation document indicates that (a) from 2003 through 2008, he treated a young woman with excessive amounts of tranquilizers and narcotic painkilling drugs, and (b) he failed to document objective findings for diagnosing the patient with interstitial cystitis, fibromyalgia, and chronic abdominal pain. The agreement states that after two years he can apply for reinstatement provided that the Colorado Physician's Health Program clears him as safe to continue practice .
- Thermos acquired a California license in 2009 and subsequently worked at various clinics that offer a range of nonstandard methods. In 2013, based on Colorado's action, the Osteopathic Medical Board of California issued a stipulated settlement and disciplinary order under which he agreed to (a) pay $4,016 for costs, (b) serve five years on probation, (c) take courses in pharmacology and medical ethics, (d) take extensive clinical training, and (e) complete a professional enhancement program .
The Bottom Line
Over the years, Steenblock has advocated and/or used many treatments that are unsubstantiated and lack a scientifically plausible rationale. His current favorites seem to be hyperbaric oxygen and stem cell treatment. He has been disciplined twice for negligence and now serving five years' probation. This article summarizes why I am skeptical of his offerings.
- Stroke Doctor Web site home page, accessed Sept 23, 2009.
- Meet the doctor! Stemcell.md Web site accessed Sept 24, 2009.
- The future is now! Stem Cell Therapies home page, accessed Sept 23, 2009.
- David Steenblock, M.D., D.O. Cancer Control Society Web site,
- Barrett S. Quack electrodiagnostic devices. Quackwatch, June 20, 2009.
- Steenblock DA. Stroke and traumatic brain injury. Stroke Doctor Web site, accessed Sept 24, 2009.
- Stem cell basics. NIH Web site, accessed Sept 24, 2009.
- What would you hope to achieve from human pluripotent stem cell research? National Institute of Health Web site, Accessed, Sept 24, 2009.
- Stem cells and diseases. NIH Web site, accessed Sept 24, 2009.
- Background – Dr. Anthony G. Payne. HealingCare4u.org, accessed Sept 25, 2009.
- Shopick J. Exploring stem cell potentials with Anthony Payne, Ph.D. Alternative & Complementary Therapies, June 2005, pp 146-151.
- Steenblock DA, Payne AG. Umbilical Cord Stem Cell Therapy: The Gift of Healing from Healthy Newborns. Laguna Beach, CA: Basic Health Publications, 2006.
- Ramirez, R, Steenblock DA, Payne AG, Darnall L. Umbilical cord stem cell therapy for cerebral palsy. Medical Hypotheses and Research 3:679-686, 2006.
- Steenblock DA. Bone marrow stem cell therapy (video). Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) meeting, Cambridge, England, Sept 8, 2002.
- Testimonials. StemCell.md Web site, accessed Sept 24, 2009.
- This is Emily. Video posted to YouTube on Aug 13, 2009 by Dr. Steenblock.
- Payne AG. Beneficial effects on subcutaneously injected human umbilical cord stem cells on cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury in children and a posited mechanism. Medical Hypotheses and Research 2:497-501, 2005.
- Steenblock Research Institute. Form 990-EZ. tax year 2006.
- Steenblock Research Institute. Form 990-EZ. tax year 2007
- Steenblock Research Institute. Form 990-EZ. tax year 2008.
- Amended accusation. In the matter of the accusation against David Steenblock, D.O., No. 91-1, Aug 19, 1993.
- Stipulation in settlement and decision, In the matter of the accusation against David Steenblock, D.O., No 91-1, Feb 7, 1994.
- Amended petition to revoke probation. In the matter of the petition to revoke probation against David Alan Steenblock, D.O., No 97-5, March 9, 1998.
- Proposed decision. In the matter of the petition to revoke probation against David Alan Steenblock, D.O., No 97-5, Dec 20, 1999, adopted by the Board on Feb 28, 2000.
- Accusation. In the matter of the accusation against David Steenblock, D.O., Case No. 00-2005-001536, Jan 30, 2008.
- Decision. In the matter of the accusation against David Steenblock, D.O., Case No. 00-2005-001536, Aug 13, 2009.
- Petition to revoke probation. In the matter of the pettion to revoke the probation of David A. Steenblock, D.O.., Case No 00-2011-3259. Filed Nov 29, 2011.
- Notice of decision and order. In the matter of the pettion to revoke the probation of David A. Steenblock, M.D. Case No 00-2011-3259, OAH No. 2011120869, Feb 25, 2013.
- Stipulation and final agency order. In the matter of the application for a lixcense license to practice medicine in the State of Colorado of Alexander W. Thermos, D.O., Nov 19, 1999.
- Allen Davis J. Letter to Alexander W. Thermos, D.O., June 14, 2007.
- Stipulation and final agency order In the matter of the disciplinary proceeding regardig the license ot practice medicine in the State of Colorado of Alexander Thermos, D.O., License Number 38341. Nov 16, 2011
- Siipulated settlement and disciplinary order. In the matter of the accusation against Alexander William Thermos, D.O.before the Osteopathic Medical Board of California. Case No. 16-2011-3335. July 22, 2013.
This page was revised on September 7, 2013.