One of the bigger stem cell stories in the past week was that hockey legend Gordie Howe had received a stem cell ‘treatment” that had “miraculous” positive effects after having a few strokes over the last couple months. (update: see more on celebrities rolling the dice on unproven stem cells here).
I am highly skeptical of this holiday miracle stem cell story and very disappointed in the media for essentially swallowing the PR (most often verbatim) without giving it more thought. How about doing investigative reporting or asking good, probing questions?
I like hockey. I went to many games when I used to live in Seattle as a fan of the Seattle Breakers. I have great respect for Mr. Howe, I’m glad he’s feeling better, and wish him the best. I have a bad feeling about this stem cell miracle story though.
So what’s the scoop here?
Howe received stem cells via a company called Stemedica along with a Mexican firm called Novastem. Let’s take a close look at the statement reportedly released by the Howe family about this stem cell intervention to identify some very puzzling and concerning elements that are red flags (emphasis mine):
“Following the press coverage of our father’s deteriorating medical condition, the Howe Family was contacted in late November by Dr. Maynard Howe (CEO) and Dave McGuigan (VP) of Stemedica Cell Technologies. McGuigan knew our family as a result of his previous employment with the Detroit Red Wings. Stemedica is a biotechnology company that manufactures allogeneic adult stem cells in its U.S. government licensed, cGMP facility in San Diego, California. Although no relation, Dr. Howe and his brothers Drs. David and Roger are hockey players and big Gordie Howe fans, having grown up in Minnesota. They wished to help our father by generously facilitating Dad’s participation in a stem cell clinical trial at Novastem, a licensed distributor of Stemedica’s products in Mexico.
Novastem (www.novastem.mx) is currently conducting federally licensed and Institutional Review Board approved clinical trials for several medical conditions, including stroke, using Stemedica’s stem cell products. At the time we were contacted, Mr. Hockey had been rapidly declining and was essentially bedridden with little ability to communicate or to eat on his own.
After reviewing the information on Stemedica and Novastem, our family decided to give our father this opportunity. On December 8, Mr. Hockey underwent a two-day, non-surgical treatment at Novastem’s medical facility. The treatment included neural stem cells injected into the spinal canal on Day 1 and mesenchymal stem cells by intravenous infusion on Day 2. His response was truly miraculous. 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.
On the third day, he walked to his seat on the plane under his own power. By Day 5 he was walking unaided and taking part in helping out with daily household chores. When tested, his ability to name items has gone from less than 25 percent before the procedure to 85 percent today. His physical therapists have been astonished. Although his short-term memory, strength, endurance and coordination have plenty of room for improvement, we are hopeful that he will continue to improve in the months to come.
As a family, we are thrilled that Dad’s quality of life has greatly improved, and his progress has exceeded our greatest expectations. Once again, we cannot emphasize how much you have fueled Mr. Hockey’s recovery and we thank everyone for their continued prayers and support.”
Let’s walk briefly through the highlighted parts one-by-one and think about the questions that they raise. Note that I’ve contacted Stemedica with some of these questions and have posted their replies here.
1. The Howe family was contacted by Stemedica. Did Stemedica reach out as a public relations effort?
2. The statement describing Stemedica is a red flag for a number of reasons. It includes very technical terminology not widely understood outside the stem cell biotech and regulatory field. Was it written by Stemedica or Novastem or others linked to these stem cell for-profits? Stemedica now says they did not write it.
3. Stemedica generously facilitated Howe’s clinical trial participation. This also is concerning. Did Stemedica and Novastem provide free ‘treatment’ to Mr. Howe, hoping for some positive, essentially free publicity?
4. The weblink to Novastem. Why would a statement by Howe’s family include a weblink to Novastem? Did the company ask the Howe family to do that in their statement as a way to get more customers?
5. Federally licensed clinical trials? This vague statement could be misinterpreted to mean that the trials are licensed by the FDA here in the US. Again, to my knowledge, this is not the case. Are they perhaps referring to licensed by the Mexican government?
6. “Truly miraculous” response. 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.
7. Tested improvement. Who tested Mr. Howe’s function? Family? Physicians? How was it measured objectively?
Sadly, this “family” statement has a feeling potentially of being like an ad for Stemedica and Novastem.
The bottom line is that I view this story of the stem cell ‘miracle’ for Mr. Howe as a troubling, complicated tale. It’s frustrating that the media did not do a better job of investigating it rather than just parroting what they were told. Again, 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”.