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Exclusive: Gordie Howe’s health improves thanks to stem cell treatment, says family

Hockey fans have been concerned about the health of NHL great Gordie Howe after he suffered a debilitating stroke late last year. But a revolutionary treatment seems to have him on the mend. In a Canadian exclusive, we get a look at how the legend is doing now. Cindy Pom has the story.

Update: This story was updated on June 10, 2016. Canadian hockey legend Gordie Howe died at 88 in his family home in Ohio.

TORONTO – Just before Christmas in 2014, Canadian hockey legend Gordie Howe suffered a major stroke. He couldn’t stand, let alone put on skates.

But his family said that stem cell treatment had the 86-year-old legend on the mend.

“My professional medical opinion is he had one big stroke on Oct. 26 and after that he had what I would call just a general decline,” Dr. Murray Howe, Gordie’s son, told Global News at the time.

But Stemedica, a U.S. biopharmaceutical company led by another Howe – Dr. Roger Howe (no relation) – extended an invitation to its clinic for treatment. The family travelled to Mexico for a shot to save the former Detroit Red Wings player’s life.

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READ MORE: Gordie Howe dead at 88

Adult stem cells were injected into Howe’s spine and blood stream. His family said the treatment was a game-changer.

“Motor-wise, he’s doing incredibly well. He’s essentially back to where he was before the stroke,” Murray Howe said.

WATCH: Gordie Howe is seen in a recent home video filmed in Texas as he plays some pickup hockey with his great-grandson. He is recovering at his daughter’s home after suffering a stroke late last year. 

Stem cell therapy is revolutionary but it comes with its fair share of controversy.

READ MORE: Howe’s stem cell treatment raises concerns

Dr. Duncan Stewart, CEO and scientific director of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, said that stem cell research holds incredible promise, but the dramatic improvement that Gordie Howe experienced is surprising, given past research on the type of stem cell therapy he received.

“There is quite convincing data that there is an effect in some cases, but the effect is quite modest,” Stewart said.

“It’s still early days but we must remember that this is a complicated thing to do. It’s not just a simple matter of sticking stem cells in and hoping it’ll do its job. You need to make sure it’s the right cell, it gets into the right place and even then we’re learning that the vast majority of cells don’t survive,” he warned.

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READ MORE: Saskatoon arena officially renamed after Gordie Howe

Dr. Roger Howe, Stemedica’s executive chairman, stuck by the treatment’s effectiveness.

“As a company we do not claim that our cells cure any medical condition but we do indicate that our purpose is to improve the quality of life of the patients who receive the stem cell therapy,” Howe explained.

Gordie Howe’s family celebrated his improvements. In 2015, he was recovering at his daughter’s home and was planning to fly to Saskatoon for a tribute.

Known as “Mr. Hockey,” Howe was the NHL’s Most Valuable Player six times. He played on four Stanley Cup championship teams in Detroit during a 25-year stint that began in 1946. The league scoring records he set stood until Wayne Gretzky broke them.

Both Gordie and his son Mark Howe are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Ultimately, Howe died on June 10 at age 88. He was in his family home in Ohio.

– With files from Global’s Lisa MacGregor

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca