October 25, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Gordie Howe family reportedly invested in Stemedica

Gordie Howe got a stem cell treatment from Stemedica; his family ended up with ties to the company.
Gordie Howe got a stem cell treatment from Stemedica; his family ended up with ties to the company.

Hockey legend Gordie Howe had a devastating stroke last fall and supposedly a stem cell treatment in Mexico from for-profit stem cell businesses, Stemedica and Novastem, caused a remarkable recovery in Howe.

It has been one of the most hyped stem cell stories in history.

What really happened?

Today a new article on a fresh investigation into this story sheds some important additional light on it including the bombshell that Howe’s family has invested in Stemedica.

For background, the Howe treatment was given via stem cell company Stemedica and its partner in Mexico, Novastem. Reportedly, Anesthesiologist Cesar Amescua did the actual stem cell transplant into Howe.

Back immediately after the treatment in Mexico, Howe’s family raved about it. The effects were described by them and others as miraculous.

Sports commentator Keith Olbermann went ‘weak in the knees’ at how amazing it all seemed in a gushing interview with Stemedica leader, Maynard Howe (no relation to Gordie) on the air.

I was happy to see Gordie doing well, but skeptical for a variety of reasons that stem cells were the reason. If anything, David Gorski was even more skeptical.

Why?

First, the timing of the recovery seemed way too fast for a stem cell treatment. Howe reportedly had gotten better almost immediately after getting the cells, which would normally be expected to take quite some time to work — days or weeks instead of a few hours.

In addition, Howe’s recovery could have been a result of any number of things including simply placebo effect or a natural recovery from the stroke. Many were claiming out right that the stem cells worked magic.Duncan Stewart

Further, Howe received the treatment for free, while it would normally cost $30,000, and the Howe family was not shy about telling the world how great it all seemed to be and how wonderful Stemedica was. It’s understandable I suppose that they were enthusiastic about a company that they believed had helped their dad.

Stemedica and Novastem received the equivalent of an all out PR blitz in the media. Additional business seemed to head their way.

CTV News/W5 has now investigated and reported on what they found both on TV and online.

I encourage you to watch the videos as they are very striking.

Dr. Duncan Stewart, the scientific director of regenerative medicine at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a stem cell researcher (pictured above from video screenshot), agreed to visit Stemedica and Novastem as part of the CTV investigation. By way of disclosure, I was separately invited to visit as well, but declined because I felt concerned about how this story had unfolded.

Stewart viewed the situation as a good news/bad news kind of thing as described on the Ottawa Hospital website:

“The good news is that the stem cells that Mr. Howe received were produced in a facility in the U.S. that complies with appropriate regulations, so we know that these were high-quality stem cells,” said Dr. Stewart. “I was also encouraged to see that the licensing agreement between the stem cell production facility in the U.S. and the clinic in Mexico requires that the stem cells be administered through clinical trials.”

“The bad news is that the clinic in Mexico is not in a position to perform clinical trials that meet Canadian and U.S. regulatory standards,” added Dr. Stewart. “This means that it is not clear whether meaningful results will be collected and whether patient safety will be adequately protected. It is also important to remember that this is not a research facility – it is a for-profit business.”

Howe’s recovery itself seems indisputable and is great news, but what caused it?

Nobody can be sure.

Dr. Steven Cramer, a neurologist at University of California Irvine, examined Howe and suggested possible non-stem cell treatment-related reasons as to why Howe might have bounced back:

“Cramer says physical and occupational therapy could have played a role or there may have been a spontaneous improvement, which happens sometimes during the first three to six months. But Gordie’s recovery may be due to the so-called “piss-and-vinegar gene” — a fighting spirit or drive that Gordie has in abundance, Cramer said.”

Another notable thing mentioned in the coverage of this investigation was this shocker:

“Following Gordie’s amazing recovery they have invested in Stemedica, and Murray Howe is hoping to begin studies of stem-cell treatment for brain injuries at his hospital in Ohio.”

Gordie’s children have invested in Stemedica?  This investment is also mentioned in the CTV online piece, but only near the end and without any details.

This purported investment, if confirmed, means that Gordie Howe’s family have a vested interest in the success of the company that treated their father. This connection raises some serious concerns.

See here for Leigh Turner’s insightful perspective on the Howe family investment in Stemedica including five key questions that he believes the family should address:
  • Who in the Howe family invested in Stemedica?
  • What is the size of this investment?
  • Where was this investment first discussed?
  • When did members of the Howe family make this investment?
  • Why did they decide to invest in Stemedica, why have reporters not described their investment until this weekend, and have any Howe family members done media interviews without first disclosing this investment?
In the end we may never know the answers to these questions or the reason that Gordie bounced back so well, but this story illustrates the complexity of the stem cell for-profit clinic world and the difficulty in separating fact from speculation or promotion.
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