SAN DIEGO — Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr recently returned from a second round of stem cell treatments in Tijuana, Mexico — an injection that is intended to heal his brain and get him ready to make a triumphant return to Green Bay for a Thanksgiving Day game between the Packers and Chicago Bears.
The treatment was his second trip since June to Tijuana, where he sought experimental medicine to help him recover from two strokes and a heart attack last year. This time the treatment involved neural stem cells that were inserted through his spine.
“It was hard, in the beginning, but once they got it in, he was OK,” his wife Cherry Starr, told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s been great since then. We have to keep him quiet for about a week and not let him do anything to strain a muscle, no heavy exercise, so these things can go where they are supposed to go, which is the brain.”
Cherry Starr said it’s too early to tell how well the latest treatment might have worked because it’s believed it needs a few weeks to take effect. She said they timed it in part so that he would be in good health to return to Green Bay, where her husband, 81, played from 1956 through 1971. His goal is to walk on the field with former Packers quarterback Brett Favre when Favre’s jersey number is retired at halftime on Thanksgiving.
If he reaches that goal, it would be a huge moment for Starr, who has ridden a roller coaster with his health in the last few months in his home state of Alabama. It also could once again raise the profile of these treatments, which are unapproved in the U.S. To gain approval in the U.S., such stem cells first would have to go through long and expensive clinical trials to prove their safety and effectiveness.
The company that manufactures them, Stemedica Cell Technologies, is based in San Diego and ships the cells to Tijuana for a clinical trial there, where costs are cheaper.
The company declined comment Thursday. Previously, two other famous stroke victims received similar injections of Stemedica’s cells at the same Novastem clinic in Tijuana — former hockey starGordie Howe and former NFL MVPquarterback John Brodie.
The clinical trial for stroke victims at Novastem has involved two types of Stemedica’s stem cells — mesenchymal cells derived from the bone marrow of a young adult and neural cells derived from the brain tissue of a single fetus that was legally donated and obtained in the U.S.
Such organs generally come from elective or spontaneous abortions and could have been discarded if not donated. Stemedica previously said it is not donor-dependent and only needs one fetus to produce 400,000 treatments.
“I know there’s a lot of controversy about it, but I’m comfortable with it,” Cherry Starr said. “Bart and I lost a first child at 4½ months that we were expecting. If I could have contributed to someone’s health with donating my fetus, I would have gladly done it. It would really make me happy to know I was helping someone.”
She noted that he and her husband are signed up to be organ donors. She’s also hopeful that these treatments can help her husband, who barely could walk or feed himself after his strokes last year.
The first treatment in Tijuana in June seemed to help him after a few weeks, though U.S. experts caution against drawing conclusions about causation based on anecdotal evidence.
In general, “there can be healing that can take place over time without any treatment,” said R. Alta Charo, a law professor and bioethics expert at the University of Wisconsin. “The fact that (a patient) got this treatment and then healing doesn’t necessarily mean the treatment caused the healing.”
In July, Cherry Starr said her husband could walk and feed himself and that his cognition had improved dramatically.
But then came a big setback in late summer, when both Cherry and Bart Starr suffered from a respiratory illness that she said was making the rounds in Alabama. His temperature hit 103 degrees, and his heart rate hit 200 beats per minute on the way to hospital, “which is almost a death sentence for a man 81 years old,” Cherry Starr said.
The ordeal threatened the progress he’s made this year, but he’s recovered enough to make another trip to Tijuana, which had been scheduled before his setback.
The trip last week included a special surprise. Before his treatment in Tijuana, the Starrs had dinner across the border in San Diego with Steve Mariucci, the former NFL head coach. It was Mariucci’s 60th birthday.
“We just had a nice quiet dinner with Bart,” Cherry Starr said. “It was really, really sweet.”
It might have seemed as if the stars were aligning just right for the Starrs to return to Green Bay. Mariucci, after all, once was Favre’s quarterback coach in Green Bay.
“Bart will be going on the field with Brett,” Cherry Starr said. “We’re really excited about that.”
Follow sports reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org