The”miraculous” recovery of the Canadian hockey legend Gordie Howe, who suffered a severe stroke in October, made news across the country — and raised many questions.
In mid-December, the star of Detroit Red Wings, received an experimental stem cell treatment in Mexico.
Howe’s son Mark told the Detroit Free Press that his father’s health has significantly improved since then. “His mobility was limited to shuffling his feet forward while sitting in a wheelchair. Within the past few days dad was pushing a cart at a grocery store, and he’s gone to the mall.” he said.
But what is the other side of Howe’s fast resurgence? Was the procedure safe? Does it send out the wrong message?
The scientific validity of the procedure Howe underwent is unclear. According to the newspaper U-T San Diego Howe received the treatment from Novastem, a Mexican stem cell company, at a clinic in Tijuana. San Diego’s Stemedica, which provided the stem cells, says it follows U.S. law and requires those licensing its stem cells in foreign countries to obey the laws of those countries.
Regardless, over the last years the much publicized potential of stem cells has raised hope among patients suffering from chronic diseases. This, in turn, has led some less than scrupulous companies across the globe to capitalize on that hope by marketing costly stem cell therapies — often for a wide variety of diseases — without the support of proven clinical evidence.
Canadian scientists and medical ethics experts have warned that this phenomenon of stem cell tourism is on the rise and so are its risks.
As reported in Ottawa Citizen this morning, Howe is one of many Canadians who put themselves in danger by seeking experimental stem cell therapies in countries with softer regulations than in Canada.
“Patients go to places that offer stem cell therapies because they are looking for hope. And stem cells can offer that hope. Unfortunately, very often there is no proven benefit.” Dr. Duncan Stewart, chief executive and financial director of the regenerative medicine program at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute told the Ottawa Citizen.
In past posts, Prof. Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta and a member of the Foundation’s Science Leadership Council, has said that unproven treatments create health risks for patients and undermine the credibility of stem cell research.
On this note, James Price, President and CEO of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation, told the Citizen that “stem cell tourism should be a wake-up call that Canada needs to prioritize funding for stem cell therapies.” He says it illustrates the need for the Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan, which has a goal of leading the way to developing five to 10 new treatments to the clinic within 10 years.
As reported in the Citizen story, “A major emphasis of the stem cell Action Plan, which includes public and private funding, is giving Canadians confidence that new therapies are a priority and ultimately, Canadians will have first access to these therapies.”