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André Picard

André Picard

ANDRÉ PICARD

The stem-cell ‘miracle’ is anecdotal Add to ...

On the weekend, a who’s who of hockey legends gathered to pay tribute to Gordie Howe in his hometown of Saskatoon.

In addition to sharing memories about Mr. Hockey, a constant theme of the festivities was his “miracle” recovery from stroke.

Mr. Howe, 86, suffered two strokes last year and, according to his family, was near death before he travelled to Clinica Santa Clarita in Tijuana, Mexico, in December for experimental stem-cell treatment.

Afterward, Mr. Howe was able to walk again. He regained a lot of weight and he began to resemble his old self. (Most of this is second-hand; Mr. Howe also suffers from dementia and has not or cannot speak of his symptoms or treatment first-hand.)

“After his stem-cell treatment, the doctor told us it was kind of an awakening of the body,” his son, Marty Howe, told The Canadian Press. “… They call it the miracle of stem cells and it was nothing less than a miracle.”

Mr. Howe’s Lazarus-like recovery makes for a great tug-at-the-heartstrings narrative for a man whose career has been the embodiment of perseverance and longevity. But if you step back a moment and examine the science, all sorts of alarm bells should go off.

Stem cells, which were discovered in the early 1960s, have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cells, at least in the embryonic stage. They also serve as the body’s internal repair system.

The notion that spinal cords and limbs and heart muscle and brain cells could be regenerated holds a magical appeal.

But, so far, stem-cell therapies have been used effectively to treat only a small number of blood disorders, such as leukemia. (Canada has a public bank that collects stem cells from umbilical-cord blood and a program to match stem-cell donors with needy patients.)

Stem cells also show promise in the treatment of conditions such as spinal-cord injuries, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, but those hopes have not yet moved from the realm of science-fiction into clinical medicine.

That hasn’t prevented a host of modern-day snake-oil salesmen from touting stem-cell therapy as the cure to all ills – what Prof. Timothy Caulfield of the University of Alberta calls “scienceploitation.” For the most part, what’s being sold is hype and false hope. The only guaranteed outcome from stem-cell treatments in places like Mexico, Poland and China is that they will separate a desperate patient from their money.

Media reports suggest that Mr. Howe did not seek out stem-cell treatment nor pay for it. When news of his stroke became public, the family was contacted by Stemedica Cell Technologies, a San Diego-based manufacturer of adult stem cells. The company facilitated Mr. Howe’s treatment in a clinical trial conducted by Novastem, a distributor of its products, in Mexico. (These procedures cannot be conducted in the United States or Canada because they are unlicensed and unproven.)

Whether that was the intention or not, the “Gordie Howe was cured by stem cells” story has been a bonanza for Stemedica and Novastem. Mere mortals will pay upward of $20,000 for the same “treatment.”

The media coverage of Mr. Howe’s ordeal, more than anything else, is a striking example of how science should not be presented to the public: It has been feckless and credulous, especially on the sports networks, which too often resemble ads for Stemedica. There has been far too little of the critical analysis and questioning demonstrated by, say, New York Magazine.

We must never forget that anecdote is not evidence. And there is no evidence – repeat, none – that stem cells can be used to repair the brain after a stroke.

Anyone with a family member who has suffered a stroke will know that recovery can seem miraculous. There can be great improvements in the months following the stroke, as the brain repairs and rewires itself. Recovery depends on the severity and the location of the stroke in the brain, and we don’t know those details about Mr. Howe.

In all the gormless gushing over stem cells, it is rarely mentioned either that Mr. Howe also has the benefit of regular speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy, all of which have well-demonstrated benefits for recovering stroke patients.

These are important facts, but they don’t fit the “miracle” narrative.

It was said often at the tribute dinner that hockey flows in Mr. Howe’s blood. That may well be true, but what does not flow is the healing water of Lourdes or a modern-day “miracle” equivalent.

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Follow on Twitter: @picardonhealth

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