Point/counterpoint: Should athletes use stem cells in injury rehabilitation?

BY DI STAFF | OCTOBER 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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What do Peyton Manning and Terrell Owens have in common?

They play in the NFL, have relatively decorated careers, and are sitting out this NFL season because of injuries — Manning with neck problems and Owens with a torn ACL.

Another thing they both have in common is that they have looked to unusual methods to speed up the recovery.

The two Pro Bowlers have undergone stem-cell therapy in an attempt to jump-start their rehabilitation and get back on the gridiron.

This isn't the stem-cell treatment you're likely thinking of, though, in which an embryonic stem cell is taken from an unborn fetus and used to treat various ailments. Manning and Owens have both undergone a procedure where their adipose tissue (essentially, body fat) is extracted from the body and then injected into the area of injury. This supposedly regenerates the damaged tissue exponentially faster than it would heal without the treatment.

Even though medical facilities in the United States certainly have the ability to perform such procedures, that type of stem-cell treatment has not received FDA approval; this has forced Owens and Manning to cross borders in order to receive the controversial treatment. Manning traveled to an unknown location in Europe, and Owens visited Seoul, South Korea, on the urging of highly acclaimed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews.

Even though stem cells have been the hot topic of political debates and the like, there's no reason a surgery of this type should be banned — no matter whether it's a moral issue or a question of cheating.

Because the cells are retrieved from the subject's body, no one else is affected when an athlete undergoes the procedure.

And when it comes to the ethics of the surgery, what is there to argue? It really is just another procedure among the thousands that athletes go through to not only heal themselves but to strengthen what was injured in the first place.

If this surgery is as good as advertised, we could see our favorite athletes return to competition months sooner than previously expected. This could make the games more competitive, thus adding more value to the sport as a whole.

And Lord knows everyone would rather see Peyton Manning breaking records than Curtis Painter running around the field looking like clueless chicken with its head cut off.

— by Ben Ross


Major-league pitcher Bartolo Colon retired from the Chicago White Sox in 2009 after being continually irked by a bone injury in his elbow — or so we thought.

What we didn't know was that Colon traveled to the Dominican Republic and underwent surgery in 2010, under the supervision of Florida doctors, to have fat and bone-marrow cells extracted from his body and then injected into his shoulder and elbow. This helped the cells and bone marrow in his body heal themselves at a faster rate than they would have naturally.

This year, Colon returned to the mound and pitched for the New York Yankees, throwing a 92-mph fastball — faster than he threw before leaving Chicago. Colon finished his season with New York with an 8-10 record and 4.00 ERA.

But should this stem-cell procedure become common practice in professional athletics?


The problem with using stem cells for athletic rehab is that it blurs the lines between the ethical and unethical.

In the past decade, it's proven difficult to differentiate between the illegality of steroids and legality of blood doping — a process in which the number of red blood cells, and therefore the amount of oxygen, is increased in the blood. When it all comes down to it, what differentiates these performance-enhancing body manipulations from each other?

In this same way, taking one's own stem cells and injecting them back into a different part of the body blurs these lines and throws the issue onto a slippery slope that an only lead to more dangerous and harmful procedures to get a competitive edge.

Although Colon's procedure was perfectly legal and relatively risk-free, allowing stem-cell rejuvenation to become common practice approaches, for example, the dangerous territory of using someone else's stem cells to speed up recoveries after injury and slow the aging process in older athletes.

All in all, the most basic problem with these legal procedures is that they allow the idea to persist that simple training — eating right, stretching, lifting weights, resting between competitions, and training one's body — simply aren't enough for professional sports any more.

— Molly Irene Olmstead

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