TIJUANA, Baja (CBS 8) -- Hockey great Gordie Howe continues his remarkable recovery from a stroke after receiving stem cell treatment in Tijuana under a clinical trial.
CBS News 8 traveled south of the border to the clinic where the stem cells – manufactured in San Diego – were implanted into the sports legend known as Mr. Hockey.
Howe was on his death bed last year after suffering a stroke in October.
His son, Murray, had actually started writing his father's eulogy when he received a phone call from a physician at Stemedica, a San Diego based stem cell company.
“When they said, ‘We think we can help your father out,' I was beyond skeptical,” said Dr. Murray Howe, a body imaging and radiology MD in Toledo, Ohio.
Dr. Howe spoke to CBS News 8 via Skype about the family's decision to take his father to Tijuana to receive stem cell infusions at Norvastem's Clinica Santa Clarita.
“We were really impressed with the clinic. I was expecting the worst. But it was very clean,” said Dr. Howe.
“I was there during the administration when my dad got lumber puncture and when he got the IV stem cells. I was impressed with basically all of their care,” said Dr. Howe.
The Baja clinic uses stem cells manufactured at Stemedica in Sorrento Valley and approved for clinical trials Mexico.
“One of the things that Stemedica does when they test the cells is that they make sure they are immune privileged. So, there is no chance of rejection by the body,” said Clinica Santa Clarita director Rafael Carrillo.
Doctors and nurses at the clinic demonstrated the treatments Gordie Howe received, starting with the injection of stem cells into the spinal column.
The process takes less than 20 minutes. Afterwards, the patient has to lay flat for six hours so the cells can do their work on damaged portions of the brain.
“So they have to migrate through the spinal fluid up to the brain area,” said Dr. Cesar Amescua, a medical director at Novastem.
“The risk with stem cells is minimal,” said Dr. Amescua.
Gordie Howe's stroke had left him unable to walk. But within eight hours of his first stem cell treatment, the hockey legend sat up in his bed at the clinic and walked over to the bathroom.
His son Murray was in the room at the time.
“He said, 'Well I'll just walk to the bathroom.' Then, I said, 'You can't walk.' And he said, 'Well the hell I can't.' And he sits up and puts his feet over the edge of the bed and I was absolutely astounded that he could do that,” said Dr. Murray Howe.
The next day, Gordie Howe received a second treatment, which was also demonstrated at the clinic in Tijuana.
Doctors use an intravenous solution to slowly inject stem cells into the blood stream.
The stem cells – derived from bone marrow – can help increase blood flow and oxygen delivery to damaged organs.
“The whole process takes about an hour,” said Dr. Amescua.
Over the past six months, Novastem has treated about 50 patients for everything from congestive heart failure to strokes; even orthopedic injuries.
“We cannot claim that we will cure the patient with stem cells but we can definitely say that patients will have an improvement and the range of improvement is unpredictable still,” said Dr. Amescua.
It's important to keep in mind that results of stem cell treatment may vary from patient to patient.
These stem cell treatments are not yet approved in the United States for widespread use, as ongoing clinical trials attempt to demonstrate a cause-and-effect success rate.
But Gordie Howe's family members are convinced the treatments helped Mr. Hockey get back on his feet.
“At this point you can't even tell he had a stroke, that's what's really amazing,” Dr. Murray Howe.
“You know you have a man who's basically on his death bed and you do a treatment and eight hours later he's up and walking and talking. I would say absolutely, it was the stem cells,” said Dr. Howe.
Gordie Howe received his stem cell treatments for free, paid for by the Stemedica company in San Diego.
The two treatments combined normally cost about $30,000.
Mr. Hockey plans on returning to the same Baja clinic for a second round of treatments in June.