For Athletes, the Next Fountain of Youth?

The New York Times—March 29, 2007

The latest curative leap to heal professional athletes and weekend warriors alike may sound like science fiction, but it could transform sports medicine. Some doctors and researchers say that in a few years the use of primitive stem cells from infants’ umbilical cord blood could grow new knee ligaments or elbow tendons, creating a therapy that becomes the vanguard of sports injury repair.

Already, some sports agents are preparing to advise clients about banking stem cells from their offspring or from tissue taken from their own bodies as an insurance policy against a career-ending infirmity. Stem cell blood banks are promoting the benefits of stem cell therapies for the practical healing and rehabilitation of tendons, ligaments, muscle and cartilage. There are skeptics in the medical community who wonder how soon the technology will be viable, but enthusiastic advocates of the therapies say the time is near.

“It’s not a pie in the sky notion,” said Dr. Scott Rodeo, an orthopedist and award-winning research scientist at Manhattan’s Hospital for Special Surgery. “Maybe it’s not going to happen next year, but a three-to-five-year horizon is not unreasonable.”

Dr. Rodeo has already practiced these technologies in laboratory surgeries on rats, methods that will be especially useful when reconstructing the knee’s anterior cruciate ligament and the shoulder’s rotator cuff. Both are common sports maladies that can be particularly daunting to surgeons because the body generally does not mend or restore the damaged tissue after these injuries.

“In each case, stem cells clearly have some beneficial role in inducing tissue regeneration,” said Dr. Rodeo, who is also a team physician with the Giants and a former United States Olympic team doctor.

The kinds of stem cell therapies being researched for the most part do not involve the politically sensitive use of embryonic stem cells. But they could involve using harvested adult stem cells, stem cells saved from a child at birth or cells from what may someday be a national bank of donated stem cells derived from the umbilical cord or placenta.

With stem cell technology advancing, some are acting now to prepare for the wealth of restorative possibilities. Five professional soccer players had their children’s stem cells frozen at birth and stored in a Liverpool stem cell bank, according to a story last year in The Sunday Times of London. One of the players called the stem cells a potential repair kit for a career-threatening injury.
Stem cell therapies could do more than refurbish joints, they could help build muscle in elite athletes and increase other physical capacities at a pace and proficiency not conventionally attainable.

To read the full story, visit The New York Times website.

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