Bart Starr is hoping to make another trip to Mexico in the next week or two for a second round of an experimental stem-cell treatment.
Starr first tried the treatment last year, and his family is convinced it played a crucial role in allowing him to return to Lambeau Field to help celebrate the unveiling of Brett Favre’s retired number in the stadium bowl on Thanksgiving.
Starr’s second time through the protocol is contingent upon him staying well enough to make the trip. He hasbeen hindered by a series of infections over the past few months and has to be off antibiotics for several days to undergo the procedure.
Starr is antibiotic-free now, according to his son, Bart Starr Jr. If the former Green Bay Packers great is able to undergo the second round in the next week or so, and if his family determines that he has responded anywhere near as well as he did the last time, he might even attend a Packers game again in November or December.
“He really responded well when we got him up to Green Bay last year,” Starr Jr., said. “That’s not an accident. He and my mom were up there for over three decades. The friendships that they established and the way he feels about the organization and the fans, that came rushing back when we got him there. So you can see why I want to try to get him back up there again.”
Starr, 82, has been through numerous ups and downs in his recovery from a heart attack, two strokes and multiple seizures in September 2014. The incidents left him significantly impaired physically and cognitively.
He underwent the two-step, stem-cell protocol in June and then November last year, and was well enough to join Favre on the field on Thanksgiving night. His progress thereafter was derailed when he broke his hip in a fall in his home in late December, and since then he has suffered multiple infections that have interfered with his ability to regularly attend rehabilitation sessions.
“When he broke his hip, that really messed everything up,” Starr Jr. said. “The good news is, his hip healed pretty quickly, which shows the value, I think, in an unanticipated way, of how stem cells can help. That is, the therapy helped his healing of what would otherwise have taken longer to heal.
“… The doctors were quite surprised at how well he had healed for a person who’s 82 years old. So now without the injury – and we’ll do our best to make sure there’s not a subsequent injury – you can see why we’re very hopeful he’ll be getting stronger (after another treatment) and will be able to sustain it.”
Experts emphasize that until there is sound data to back it up, there’s no way to know whether any perceived improvements in patients is because of the stem cells or from natural healing and physical therapy. The company that produces the cells, Stemedica, also has begun clinical trials in the United States this year as part of the regulatory process of proving that the treatment is safe and effective.
But the trials are cheaper for companies to conduct in Mexico, and people such as Starr, former NFL quarterback John Brodie and former hockey great Gordie Howe have taken part in those trials.
The Starrs are convinced that the first round of treatments helped Bart significantly. Starr Jr. said he could see a difference in as little as 12 hours after the first stem-cell infusion when his father was able to walk up the stairs to his flight home mostly on his own after needing extensive help on the trip to Mexico. Starr Jr. said that the full effect of the treatment appeared to take two to four weeks.
“If we could get 65 or 75 percent of the boost in energy that he got the first go round, that would be easily worth it,” Starr Jr. said.
A team spokesman said the organization has been in contact with the Starrs about Bart's impending trip to Mexico for a second round of treatment.
"Bart is one of our most beloved alumni and would have an awesome welcome (at Lambeau)," said Aaron Popkey, the Packers' director of public affairs. "But first and foremost, his immediate needs are most important."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.