Hockey legend Gordie Howe emerged from a round of stem cell treatment in Mexico just before Christmas, the results of which his family described as “truly miraculous”. This after a long period during which Howe had been “had been rapidly declining and was essentially bedridden with little ability to communicate or to eat on his own.”
After news of Howe’s declining health went public, the Howe family was contacted in late November by Stemedica, a San Diego-based biotechnology company, one of whose doctors previously worked for the Detroit Red Wings.
Howe, who played 25 years with the Red Wings, winning four Stanley Cups with the club, underwent a two-day non-surgical procedure at Novastem, a licensed distributor of Stemedica’s products in Tijuana, Mexico.
Howe’s treatment, paid for by Novastem, consisted of neural stem cells injected into the spinal canal on Day 1 and mesenchymal stem cells by intravenous infusion on Day 2. Novastem president Rafael Carillo estimated the cost of Howe’s treatment at approximately $20,000.
“At the end of Day 1 he was walking with minimal effort for the first time since his stroke. By Day 2 he was conversing comfortably with family and staff at the clinic,” wrote the Howe family in a press release issued to Hockey News.
Howe then reportedly walked to his own seat on the plane under his own power and has since been walking unaided and performing household chores like sweeping, raking and doing the dishes.
Son Mark told the Detroit Free Press that his father had been kicking a ball around in the yard and that he “was pushing a cart at a grocery store, and he’s gone to the mall.”
Experts in the stem cell field use the term “stem cell tourist” to refer to patients whose families are willing to travel and pay large sums of money outside the U.S. and Canada for what seem like miracle solutions. They worry that high-profile success stories like Howe’s raise false hopes for desperate families.
Immediately after Howe’s treatment, Novastem issued a press release to the effect that the company had treated their first patient in a “federally licensed” Mexican clinical trial, “using Stemedica’s mesenchymal and neural stem cell combination therapy for ischemic stroke.”
Novastem didn’t identify Gordie Howe as the patient in that press release, but he fits the bill.
While most have wished Howe and his family well, enthusiastically supporting the hockey great, some question the unproven nature of stem cell procedures, as well as the need to travel to Mexico for treatment.
Dr. Paul Knoepfler, an expert on stem cell research, responded skeptically and chastised the media for “swallowing the PR” without asking critical questions before going on to highlight “some very puzzling and concerning elements that are red flags.”
Namely he was concerned that the Howe family was contacted by the company, who then offered to pay for Howe’s treatment.
Dr. Knoepfler strikes a sobering note, noting the dilemma faced by thousands of patients who might benefit from stem cell treatment in the U.S., deciding whether to wait years potentially for FDA-approved clinical trials to pan out for general use or to travel to jurisdictions such as Mexico or Russia where the procedures are already being performed in unknown circumstances.
“We’ve learned in the stem cell field to view statements about ‘miracles’ related to stem cell ‘treatments’ to be big red flags. As much as we might wish for miracles, there are few real medical miracles. … I wish Mr. Howe and his family all the best, but it’s a reasonable question to ask if they’ve been used for publicity here. The end result of this kind of situation can be more patients getting unproven, potentially risky stem cell ‘treatments’.”
“If I did not witness my father’s astonishing response, I would not have believed it myself.” – Murray Howe
In an email correspondence with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Howe’s son Murray confirmed that going to Mexico seemed the family’s sole option after running out of choices in the U.S. “When I was contacted by Stemedica just prior to that hospital admission, I was beyond skeptical. But based on the information at hand, we as a family concluded that the treatment was safe, might help, and that we had nothing to lose. This was a Hail Mary pass.”
Health professionals like Knoepfler are concerned that companies like Stemedica and Novastem prey on the hopes of vulnerable family members who might be persuaded to part with large sums of money in foreign jurisdictions for experimental treatments.
And as difficult as the long road to treatment seems in the U.S., it’s even farther out of reach in Canada.
Canadian federal regulators have demanded that experiments that produced promising results in mice first be replicated in monkeys or apes before being tried out on humans, which one neuroscientist pointed out would be extraordinarily costly, highly time consuming and ethically challenging.
A Stem Cell Oversight Committee was established in 2003, before which Canada had effectively no regulation at all concerning the practice.
The non-profit Stem Cell Network, based in Ottawa, has called for $50 million funding over the next 10 years to help streamline the clinical trial process in Canada.
Meanwhile, Dr. Knoepfler’s concern that the Howe family is being “used for publicity” by Novastem are complicated by the fact that Gordie’s son Murray is a doctor himself, with 30 years experience.
“I don’t claim to be a stem cell expert,” he writes. “But I am certainly an expert in my dad’s medical condition.”
Murray Howe currently heads the sports medicine imaging department at the University of Michigan Medical School.
“Our father had one foot in the grave on December 1,” he continues. “He could not walk, and was barely able to talk or eat. This can be confirmed by the attending physicians at UMC hospital in Lubbock.”
To critics who demand why the family decided to travel for Mexico, Murray Howe points out that the elder Howe “did not have the luxury of waiting for 6 months for a U.S. stroke trial, or even 30 days for a Compassionate IND treatment in the United States.”
As to doubts raised over the company’s pro bono treatment of his father, Murray adds, “Did Novastem treat our father for free? You betcha. They were thrilled and honored to treat a legend. Would you charge Gordie Howe for treating him? None of his doctors ever do. I certainly am not going to criticize them for being generous.”
And to skeptics who worry about the experimental nature of Howe’s treatment, Murray responds, “I wholeheartedly agree with critics who say that more research is needed on stem cells. Based on what I’ve seen, I would say we should intensify our research efforts because this technology is poised to transform medicine as we know it.”
As the old saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But judging by Murray Howe’s response to his father’s treatment, you’d have to be fairly heartless to deny the Howe family the pleasure of seeing their father recover.
“If I did not witness my father’s astonishing response, I would not have believed it myself,” writes Murray.
If all continues to go well, Howe will be making his first public appearance at the Kinsmen Celebrity Sports Dinner with Wayne Gretzky on February 6 in Saskatoon.
Gordie Howe will turn 87 on March 31. A few months ago, it was a birthday his family didn’t expect him to see.