After the 86-year-old hockey legend suffered disabling strokes last fall, his family took him to a clinic in Mexico where he underwent experimental stem cell treatment. The procedure involved injecting neural stem cells derived from donated brain tissue into Howe's spinal cord as well as intravenous injections of bone-marrow derived stem cells. According to the people around him, the results were nothing short of a miracle. His son, Marty Howe, said that his father was able to walk again, that his speech was improving, and that he had regained some weight.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells capable of renewing themselves though cell division and, under specific conditions, can be induced to become specialized. For example, in the case of a stroke, stem cells can be coaxed into becoming brain cells to replace those that were destroyed.
Stem cell therapy is one of the most exciting avenues of research with potential to treat conditions ranging from cancer and diabetes to baldness. Unfortunately, aside from certain diseases of the blood and immune system, so far the promise of stem cell treatment has not been realized. That, however, has not deterred companies from promoting stem cell therapy as some sort of miracle cure. The procedure is not available in Canada or the United States, but people travel to places like Mexico, China and Poland in the hope of being cured, a practice now described as “ Stem Cell Tourism”. In the case of Gordie Howe, the treatment was promoted by a biopharmaceutical company called Stemedica Cell Technologies, Inc. and offered at a clinic in Tijuana. Normally, this type of treatment costs $20,000; yet it was offered to Howe free of charge, most probably to popularize the treatment and attract those desperate enough to try an unproven clinical therapy.
While we cannot determine how much Gordie Howe has improved as a result of his stem cell treatment, we wish him all the best.