A Christmas miracle or untested therapy? Why even feel-good stem cell stories need to be checked for accuracy

We’ve written several pieces over the last couple of years about the trend for professional athletes to turn to untested and/or unproven stem cell therapies to help them bounce back from injuries. This week, however, came news of something a little more worrying. Ice hockey legend Gordie Howe was given stem cells to help him recover from a series of debilitating strokes. As is often the case with these stories it’s not just the nature of the treatment that raises questions, it’s also the way the media has covered it.

Gordie Howe - photo courtesy Sean Hagen from Maple Ridge, Canada

Gordie Howe – photo courtesy Sean Hagen from Maple Ridge, Canada

The facts are pretty straightforward. Howe’s strokes left him “essentially bedridden with little ability to eat or communicate on his own”, according to a statement issued by his family. Two companies – Stemedica and Novastem – then “volunteered” their services, delivering a stem cell therapy to Howe. According to the family “The response was truly miraculous.”

And that was often the extent of the digging that dozens of media outlets that reported the news did. They reported the facts of the stroke, and then just reprinted the statement from the family without questioning what kinds of cells, how they might work, etc etc. They didn’t bother to interview other stem cell scientists about this kind of approach to see if it was something that might benefit other stroke patients. They didn’t even take a closer look at the two companies involved to see what their track record on this kind of research is.

In short, it’s clearly a feel-good story about a sports legend and no one wanted to be the one to say, “hey, wait a minute here, how do we know this is real.”

No one, except Dr. Paul Knoepfler. Paul, as regular readers of this blog know, is a CIRM-funded stem cell researcher at the University of California, Davis and an avid blogger. In a post on his blog he took a much closer look at the story, posed some thoughtful questions and raised some doubts about it. He also reached out to Stemedica who, to their credit, responded promptly to his questions. You can read what they had to say here.

Paul, like the rest of us, would love to be able to say that this kind of approach worked for Gordie Howe and could work for millions of others left disabled by strokes. But Paul, unlike many news outlets that reported the story, isn’t willing to just accept it on face value.

There’s an old adage in journalism: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check to see if it’s true.” It basically means don’t accept anything on face value; dig a little deeper to see if it’s really true. Paul is doing that, and doing it very well. Other journalists might do well to follow his lead.

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