Did stem cells prolong Gordie Howe's life?

Brent Schrotenboer
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Internationally known as “Mr. Hockey,” hockey legend Gordie Howe had another nickname in the making before his death Friday at age 88 – “Mr. Stem Cell.”

Gordie Howe's jersey paying tribute to his long career as a Red Wing hangs in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena.

Howe received experimental stem cell treatments in Tijuana, Mexico, in December 2014 – treatments that his family credited with helping prolong his life after a debilitating stroke about two months earlier.

Before the treatments, Howe could barely walk or talk and was on the verge of death, his family said. Within hours after the treatments, he regained speech, mobility and vigor.

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It was a Lazarus-like story that drew widespread media attention to the treatments while raising questions about their safety and effectiveness. Did the stem cells add a year or more to his life? Or was it mostly a placebo effect – a mental boost combined with natural healing?

The answers will never be known. His son Murray, a doctor, understandably couldn’t be reached Friday. He previously spoke to USA TODAY Sports twice in 2015 and said he had no doubt the treatments helped.

“To my mind, the relationship between his stem cell treatment and his response was very clear,” Murray Howe told USA TODAY Sports on Feb. 26, 2015. “It was literally eight hours. I’ve been a practicing physician for 28 years now, and I’ve taken care of many stroke patients. All of his caregivers… all of them had taken care of stroke patients. None of them had ever seen anything like this.

"Of course it was stem cells, because how else do you explain it? It wasn’t placebo effect because my father’s short-term memory is so poor. He didn’t remember he had a stroke, and he didn’t remember he had treatment for a stroke to get better.”

In May 2015, Murray Howe said that “you can’t even tell he had a stroke” but also said his father previously had dementia and had been suffering from a “slow, steady decline” with that.

He noted that his father’s case is just one anecdotal example that doesn’t prove stem cells will work for everybody.

The effectiveness of stem cell treatments is largely unproven by U.S. scientific standards, though many U.S. clinics have offered other kinds of stem cell treatments for a variety of ailments. In Gordie Howe’s case, he received treatments that are not approved for use in the U.S. – mesenchymal and neural stem cells that were derived from donated bone marrow and fetal tissue, respectively.

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The cells were manufactured by Stemedica, a San Diego company that shipped the product to a clinic in Mexico, where clinical trials involving experimental drugs are cheaper than they are in the U.S. Howe took part in such a clinical trial at Novastem in Tijuana and was not charged for his treatment. After his sudden recovery was reported in the media, skeptics cautioned against drawing conclusions about it because stem cell treatments might be 10 to 20 years from being proven by U.S. standards.

Larry Goldstein, a stem cell expert and professor at the University of California San Diego, said it's sad that Howe died and good that he brought attention to this area of medicine, but he also noted it was unproven and therefore risky to raise hopes about it prematurely.

"We don’t have a good double-blind clinical trial that shows that it works better than a placebo," Goldstein told USA TODAY Sports Friday. "He thought it worked for him. We’re delighted when anybody gets better, but the goal of medical science is to find treatments that work for everybody, not just one-off. You never know with one person if it was the treatment, or if they happened to spontaneously get better."

Murray Howe agreed that more research was required to know if they really work on a larger scale.

“We should really focus our energies and resources on further development of stem cells to show that they are safe and effective,” Murray Howe said last year.

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To meet that objective, America’s most famous stem cell patient recently lent his name to a research effort involving stem cells for patients with traumatic brain injuries (TBI). It’s called “The Gordie Howe Initiative,” and includes a U.S. clinical trial to test the safety and effectiveness of Stemedica’s mesenchymal stem cells, derived from bone marrow donated by a healthy adult volunteer.

Stemedica issued a statement Friday saying it was saddened to learn of Howe’s death.

“In the last years of his life, Gordie also gave to the advancement of the stem cell movement, first through his participation in a government-authorized clinical trial and then through the donation of his name and likeness to The Gordie Howe TBI Initiative – a North American-wide effort to find a treatment solution for traumatic brain injury,” Stemedica’s statement said.

The initial clinical trial will be conducted at ProMedica Toledo Hospital and will involve 24 patients. If successful, such treatments would advance toward approval for widespread use in the U.S. under U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. Goldstein said he applauds Stemedica for this effort because it's "by the book" of U.S. drug-approval standards.

Howe appeared at a news conference announcing the initiative in Ohio on May 11.

“Gordie is a true hero and pioneer,” said  a statement from Stemedica CEO Maynard Howe, who is unrelated to Gordie Howe.  “His dedication to others on and off the ice rink made him unique to the world, and we are honored to have been a very small part of his life.  On behalf of our Board of Directors, Management and the staff at Stemedica, we wish to extend our deepest condolences and heart-felt wishes to Gordie’s family in this time of mourning and reflection.”

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