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Gordie Howe’s stroke treatments and A. Alfred Taubman’s legacy to U-M are putting stem cell research’s game-changing potential into the spotlight

BY JOE LAPOINTE

HOUR DETROIT MAGAZINE

The names A. Alfred Taubman and Gordie Howe are iconic in different ways around Detroit, but rarely used in the same sentence. But now it is most appropriate — and somewhat ironic — when it comes to discussions about stem cell research.

Howe, the 87-year-old hockey legend of the Red Wings, recently survived a near-death experience (not the first of his life, by the way) after a stroke.

Taubman, the shopping mall builder, art dealer, and philanthropist, died of a heart attack April 17 at age 91. But he left a medical legacy that intertwines — in coincidence and contradiction — with the fate of Howe.

Their stem cell involvement personifies a new frontier of medical research. The cells are tiny specks of human tissue injected into sick people in attempts to cure illnesses like Lou Gehrig’s disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s — and soon, perhaps, other maladies.

But the two men, and the doctors who speak for them now, represent radically different approaches on the stem cell question.

Howe, suffering from dementia, had a stroke last October. With help from his four children, he took an extreme route to recovery — to Tijuana, Mexico, for stem cell treatment not yet permitted in the United States.

His recovery from his stroke was swift and remarkable, family members say, and allowed him to travel for a celebration of his life in February to his hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in Canada.

Scheduled for a second visit to Tijuana for another treatment in June, Howe was to spend the rest of the month with his son, Dr. Murray Howe, who works in Toledo. Dr. Howe planned to take his dad to visit old friends in Michigan as summer began.

“We had no [other] option,” Dr. Howe says, and believes that without the Tijuana treatment, “he’d be dead now.” The radiologist spoke after coming on shift in the X-ray reading department at Toledo Hospital at 4:30 p.m. on a recent Monday.

At about 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds, he is smaller than his 6-foot, 220-pound father but resembles him facially, especially in profile. He wore a scrub suit that exposed muscular arms and a fit physique from the sort of genes that run in the family.

“I probably diagnose four or five patients a night with a stroke,” Dr. Howe says. “For those patients, the end result is pretty abysmal. Their outcomes are poor. Their quality of life is dramatically changed.”

Gordie’s first near-death experience came 65 years ago, when he suffered a head injury in a playoff game that forced doctors to drill a hole in his skull to relieve the pressure of fluid on his brain. Compared to that, the injection of millions of stem cells into his spine was simple.

In the near future, based on what he saw from his father, Dr. Howe hopes others can recover in the same way.

“Diagnose the stroke here,” Dr. Howe says of the hospital, “and have the emergency room infuse this patient with stem cells that evening and reverse or alleviate the damage to the point where they could walk out of that hospital the next day with very little residual deficit.”

The Tijuana treatment would cost most patients $30,000, but his father is getting his for free because, Dr. Howe says, the providers admire him.

Since Gordie’s recovery, Dr. Howe said he and his siblings have invested in the company, Stemedica, based in San Diego. According to a recent USA Today report, the company is staffed by several Russian and Ukrainian scientists. The Soviet Union was Canada’s top world hockey rival in the 1970s — the last decade of Howe’s long career.

Taubman donated at least $142 million to the University of Michigan — $100 million of that went to the A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, which hosts the Consortium for Stem Cell Therapies. Dr. Eva Feldman, director of the institute, was a close friend of his and is actively involved in researching the potential of this nascent science… Read more here.

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