Gordie Howe’s stem cell ther­apy raises ques­tions among ex­perts

The leg­endary player’s son, Marty, says his Dad’s stroke symptoms have im­proved greatly af­ter treat­ment

Metro Canada (Winnipeg) - - CANADA -

Gordie Howe’s son says the hockey leg­end’s stroke symptoms have im­proved since his treat­ment with stem cells at a Mex­i­can clinic in early De­cem­ber and he wants him to re­peat the pro­ce­dure.

But re­gen­er­a­tive medicine ex­perts say there’s no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence such ther­a­pies work, and in some cases they can be se­ri­ously harm­ful or even deadly.

The 86-year-old Howe suf­fered two dis­abling strokes late last year. In De­cem­ber, the fam­ily took him to a Tijuana clinic where he re­ceived stem cell in­jec­tions as part of a clin­i­cal trial be­ing run un­der a li­cens­ing agree­ment with Stemed­ica Cell Tech­nolo­gies of San Diego, Calif.

The ex­per­i­men­tal treat­ment in­volved in­ject­ing neu­ral stem cells into Howe’s spinal canal, along with in­tra­venous in­fu­sions of mes­enchy­mal stem cells, which are found in bone mar­row, fat and um­bil­i­cal cord blood.

Marty Howe said his fa­ther can walk again, his speech is im­prov­ing and he is re­gain­ing some of the weight he lost fol­low­ing the strokes.

“Af­ter his stem cell treat­ment, the doc­tor told us it was kind of an awak­en­ing of the body, and it was all that,’’ he told The Canadian Press while in Cal­gary for a hockey pro­mo­tion event Tues­day. “They call it the mir­a­cle of stem cells and it was noth­ing less than a mir­a­cle.’’

How­ever, ex­perts in the field ques­tion whether stem cells are re­spon­si­ble for Howe’s im­prove­ment and cau­tion that most so-called stem cell ther­a­pies have not gone through rig­or­ous sci­en­tific tri­als, nor have they been ap­proved as treat­ments by Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Mick Bha­tia, direc­tor of McMaster Uni­ver­sity’s Stem Cell and Can­cer Re­search In­sti­tute, said there are many un­knowns in Howe’s case, such as how many stem cells were ad­min­is­tered, whether tests were done to see if they mi­grated to the tar­geted area of the body, whether they took up res­i­dence where they might have some ef­fect — or did they sim­ply dis­ap­pear?

“Is this a tran­sient ef­fect, or is it re­ally a per­ceived or some­what of a placebo ef­fect and is there some­thing re­ally hap­pen­ing? Sci­en­tif­i­cally and bi­o­log­i­cally that is im­por­tant,’’ Bha­tia said Wed­nes­day from Hamil­ton.

And be­cause Howe re­ceived adult stem cells pro­duced from donor cells, he may have needed to take drugs to pre­vent an im­mune re­ac­tion as well as an­ti­in­flam­ma­tory med­i­ca­tions, he said.

PAUL HOR­TON/NEUE STU­DIOS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Gordie Howe is do­ing well af­ter stem cell treat­ment for stroke in Mex­ico.

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