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