What Does It Mean When Athletes Get 'Stem Cell Therapy'?

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Media cheerleading is misleadingly legitimizing the booming "stem cell tourism" industry.

peyton manning 615.jpg
Peyton Manning [JohnGress/Reuters]

One could argue that stem cell research is currently the most promising area of biomedical research. It is no surprise that this year's Nobel Prize in Medicine went to a duo that work in the area. But much of the press coverage associated with the field falls squarely in the too-good-to-be true category. It is this sort of unsubstantiated hype that contributes to inappropriate public expectations and the legitimization of bogus therapies.

A new and troubling dimension to the hype has emerged: the well-publicized use of "stem cell therapies" by high-profile athletes.

The phenomenon has been around for a few years. The first big stem-cells-help-athlete story seems to have been the 2011 story of New York Yankee pitcher, Bartolo Colon. He received cell therapy for a chronic shoulder injury. Then, also in 2011, came the story about Peyton Manning's neck treatments in Germany. There here have since been dozens of similar articles. Google "NFL and stem cell therapy" and what you get is a bunch of stories about football players receiving allegedly cutting-edge cell treatments from practitioners throughout the world.

While some of these stories note the experimental and possibly harmful nature of the treatments, most of the articles cast the treatments in a positive light.

The implied take away: this stuff works. If Peyton Manning is using stem cells, it must be the real deal! It has even been suggested that stem cell therapies are so powerful that they might end up being a new, undetectable, performance enhancement technology.

But a more dispassionate examination of the available scientific data paints a much different picture. There are, in fact, few stem cell therapies that are ready for the clinic. These are, in general, truly experimental procedures and it remains unclear if they can actually help injured athletes. As noted in one recently published review of the use of stem cells for knee injuries, "[m]ost reports represent animal model studies; few advances have been translated to human clinical applications."

In fact, it is an open question in the research community whether this work should truly be considered "stem cell" therapy. As noted by colleague Mick Bhatia, Director and Senior Scientist McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute, "these injury therapies lack any evidence to indicate 'stem cells' by any definition or means are being used. Any therapeutic effects noted are most likely from any cell type being injected, including cell lines, that would cause local anti-inflammatory response that is both transient (days) and does not involve any stem cell biology." His blunt conclusion: "Lots of stem cell conclusions here are bogus all the way around ... The treatment fetches a lot of money by claiming a stem cell therapy is being used."

Despite this clinical reality, a recent analysis I did with a colleague found that much of the media coverage (72.7 percent) doesn't even touch on efficacy issues. In fact, many of the stories (42 percent) specifically refer to alleged benefits, and only a few (5.7 percent) mention possible risks or safety issues. The overall vibe from the sports-oriented media is even more promotional in tone. For example, the author of an editorial on a popular sports news website states that he has observed a number of athletes get "stem cell treatments and universally each one improved dramatically."

This kind of media cheerleading is problematic for a number of reasons, but most especially because it facilitates the marketing of unproven therapies by clinics throughout the world. This booming industry -- often called "stem cell tourism" -- has been universally condemned by both scientific and health care organizations. These clinics exploit patients who are desperate for effective therapies for life threatening diseases. Sad and infuriating.

Stories about famous athletes using stem cell treatments to improve the speed of their fastball, make it to the Olympics or return to the NFL post-injury send a powerful -- and largely inaccurate -- message that these procedures are safe, effective and ready for routine use. Clinics leverage these media messages to increase demand for their questionable services. The stories help to create a veneer of scientific legitimacy that isn't justified by the existing data.

To be clear, there is great promise in this area. I firmly believe that stem cell treatments will, one day, help athletes, both professional and recreational, recover from injury. Indeed, there are teams of researchers all over the world, some funded by the NFL, working on this right now. But we aren't there yet.

It's good to see Peyton Manning back on the field leading Nobel-Prize-worthy no-huddle comebacks. But can we thank stem cell research? Unlikely.

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Timothy Caulfield is a professor at the Faculty of Law and School of Public Health, University of Alberta. He is the author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling TwistedMessages about Health, Fitness and Happiness

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