What’s the harm? Stroke victim Jim Gass went from requiring a cane and leg brace to walk to being confined to a wheelchair, thanks to dubious stem cell treatments. There’s the harm.
It’s been over two weeks now since hockey legend Gordie Howe died at the age of 88. Detroit, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, is a serious hockey town, as hockey-crazy as any town in Canada (just look at the fancy new hockey arena named after crappy pizza being built downtown only a mile from where I work), and it worshiped Gordie Howe for as long as I can remember growing up here.
The reason I mentioned this is because in late 2014, Howe suffered a series of debilitating strokes that brought him close to death. He survived, but with major neurologic deficits. As a result of Gordie Howe’s fame, representatives of a company known as Stemedica who were also fans of Gordie Howe and whose company is developing stem cell treatments for a variety of illnesses, approached the family and persuaded them to take Gordie Howe to the Novastem Clinic in Tijuana, a clinic that to me appeared to exist mainly as a means for patients not eligible for Stemedica’s clinical trials in the US to receive Stemedica’s stem cells outside of a clinical trial, cash on the barrelhead, no questions asked. In a rather ethically dubious move that could only be viewed as paying for publicity (which it got in abundance), Stemedica administered its stem cells to Gordie Howe for free. If you’re not Gordie Howe, however, it’ll cost you about $32,000.
As is the case for most anecdotes like this, Gordie Howe did improve. That is not surprising, because, as Steve Novella, who is a neurologist and thus takes care of stroke patients as part of his practice, told me at the time, the natural history of stroke is neurologic recovery that eventually plateaus several months after the stroke. This occurs as the inflammation from the initial stroke abates and as much regeneration as the body can muster occurs. Also, as I noted before, Howe had a hemorrhagic stroke, which is more dangerous and likely to kill early but, if the victim survives, he is more likely to experience better functional recovery than in the case of the much more common ischemic stroke, in which a blood clot clogs a blood vessel, resulting in the death of brain tissue supplied by that vessel. In any case, as I described in a three part series of posts (part one, part two, part three), it’s impossible to know whether the stem cell infusion that Howe underwent had anything whatsoever with his partial recovery that allowed him to make a few public appearances in 2015 and 2016.
Unfortunately, the offer by Dr. Maynard Howe (CEO) and Dave McGuigan (VP) of Stemedica Cell Technologies to treat Gordie Howe at Novastem worked brilliantly. Gordie Howe quickly became the poster child for dubious stem cell therapies. Local and national news aired credulous, feel-good human interest stories about his seemingly miraculous recovery, while Keith Olbermann practically served as a pitch man for Stemedica and didn’t take kindly at all to any criticism of his—shall we say?—enthusiastic coverage. The predominant angle taken in stories about Gordie Howe was he had undergone Stemedica’s stem cell therapy and, as result, enjoyed a “miraculous recovery” from his stroke. The vast majority of news coverage also tended to present the magic of stem cell therapies credulously, as all benefit and no risk, as a qualitative analysis published last year clearly showed, finding that the “efficacy of stem cell treatments is often assumed in news coverage and readers’ comments” and that media coverage “that presents uncritical perspectives on unproven stem cell therapies may create patient expectations, may have an affect [sic] on policy discussions, and help to feed the marketing of unproven therapies.”
Why, you might ask, am I reminding you of Gordie Howe’s use of stem cells to treat his strokes? Simple, it became part of a marketing blitz, credulously swallowed whole by Keith Olbermann and many reporters, for unproven stem cell therapies, which have been portrayed as very promising (which is likely true, although that promise hasn’t yet been proven or realized) and harmless, which is definitely not true, as evidenced by the story of Jim Gass, as published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and a variety of other media. Before I discuss Mr. Gass in more detail, however, let’s recap a bit about stem cells. (more…)