Hockey Legend Gordie Howe shone light on regenerative medicine

The beloved pro NHL player was nicknamed “Mr. Hockey”

Gordie Howe’s legend had been cemented long before his passing at the age of 88, one week ago.

Longevity, toughness, quick wit and prolific scoring ability, Mr. Hockey had it all, as was evident in the touching tributes that poured in after his death and culminated at his funeral Wednesday in Detroit, MI.

Away from the ice, his participation in experimental stem cell research may also endure as part of his legacy, bringing attention to emerging areas of regenerative medicine, albeit with a cautionary warning from a leading expert in the field.

In Oct. 2014, Howe suffered a stroke and was recruited for treatment in Mexico by San Diego, CA., based biopharmaceutical company - Stemedica.

The treatment, still yet to be approved in Canada and the U.S., exceeded his family’s wildest expectations. From the Associated Press:

“It was life changing for him and for us,” Marty Howe said. “He hadn’t walked in two months.”

Now back up to about 200 pounds, Howe goes regularly to rehab, which is aimed at giving him as much quality of life as possible. His progress since the treatments in Mexico allowed him to travel in February where he was honoured in his hometown by Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Hull, Brett Hull, and Mark and Marty Howe.

"He is doing extremely well, very well for his age,” said Nathalie Geddie, Howe’s physical therapist, adding that he still has weakness on his right side. “To think about how far he’s come since he’s had his stroke, he’s made significant functional gains.”

In one sense, this type of medicine has been around for a long time and is used quite frequently in such cases of cancer where bone marrow is transplanted in treatment.  In regard to blindness and strokes, it is much newer.

An in-depth examination of Mr. Howe’s case was done by the television news program W5 in April 2015 for the documentary “Gordie’s Comeback.”

Journalists tracked Howe’s remarkable recovery while also raising questions as to the direct impact stem cells had in the process. From the Toronto Star:

“One danger is that people will jump to conclusions this is a cure,” said Dr. Duncan Stewart, the scientific director of regenerative medicine at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a top researcher into stem cells. “This could be wasting money, could be not safe.”

Following Howe’s death, Dr. Stewart released a statement on June 12 through the Ontario Institute of Regenerative Medicine where he reiterated that Howe's results did not scientifically prove that the therapy was a cure:

“We are saddened to hear about the recent passing of hockey legend Gordie Howe and offer condolences to his family and friends. Mr. Howe and his family were very open in speaking about the experimental stem cell therapy he received and in doing so, helped to open conversations and increase awareness of stem cell tourism. Because the therapy was not conducted as part of a research-based clinical trial, we will probably never know if the procedure or the stem cells had any affect on Mr. Howe’s health. Such unapproved therapies should be strongly questioned by any who would seek it as a treatment option. More information about stem cell tourism and what to ask can be found at closerlookatstemcells.org

In regenerative medicine the goal is to get beyond just treating the symptoms of a particular health issue and prevent further devastation but to reverse its effects.  For example, in the case of a stroke, to give a particular person back their cognitive functionality.

“Stroke has been a real challenge, there are a thousand clinical trials that have failed, it is not easy to overcome due to the complexity of the brain,” Dr. Molly Shoichet told Yahoo Canada Sports via telephone.  “Even to get to the point where he was treated is based on decades of research.”

Shoichet, a professor in chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto, is an expert in the field of regenerative medicine and holds the Tier 1 Canada research chair in tissue engineering.

In Howe’s case, after being unable to walk and barely able to speak, he regained functionality which was highly encouraging after death seemed imminent.

“In Gordie Howe’s case it wasn’t necessarily part of a clinical trial, it was medical tourism,” she said. “When there aren’t really trials or known therapies, people want to try whatever they can do to get better.

“There are two scenarios, in the glass half full outlook of his treatment, stem cells caused the benefit he saw, the glass half empty is we are happy he got better with that treatment but we aren’t really sure why exactly that was.”

Howe is not the only famous person to be associated with stem cell research and therapy.

Canadian Michael J. Fox has been actively campaigning for stem cell research since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 and the late Christopher Reeve, best known best for playing the role of Clark Kent/Superman in the 1978 film "Superman" and subsequent sequels, lobbied heavily for stem cell research after a horse riding accident rendered him a quadriplegic in 1995.

While Fox and Reeve made it their intent to get the word out about regenerative medicine, that wasn’t the case with Howe. His family only went public after numerous media inquiries about his drastic improvement.

As his son Dr. Murray Howe said at the time. From CTV News:

"We felt we had to tell everybody because the last press release, we said Mr. Hockey isn't doing well he is back in the hospital. We don't know how much longer he is going to be with us,” says Murray.

“Then suddenly he is raking and sweeping and goofing around in the back yard. And people ask ‘Why is he doing better?’ and so we decided that at some point, we had to explain what's going on."

Regardless, it seems the possibility that stem cell treatment may have extended his quality of life by nearly two years is impactful in itself.

“The fact that it may have worked for him is fantastic,” Shoichet said. “The fact the he brought attention to this field is great.”

Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya

A woman signs a memorial wall as thousands of people line up to pay their respects to NHL Hall-of-Famer Gordie Howe as his casket rests in the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Mich., on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
A woman signs a memorial wall as thousands of people line up to pay their respects to NHL Hall-of-Famer Gordie Howe as his casket rests in the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Mich., on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette