Sports Medicine Miracles?

Designer "spare parts" for ruptured tendons and torn ligaments. Stem cell injections to heal and build muscle. Medical therapeutics that would allow star athletes to extend their careers by years, if not decades.

Welcome to what some envision as the new world of sports therapeutics. Proponents say that such regenerative treatments could be on the way in the years to come.

Clinical trials investigating stem cells' potential in regenerating cartilage and healing muscle are currently under way. And already, some companies that freeze and store certain types of stem cells are promoting the potential of stem cell therapies for sports medicine. The idea is that stem cells stored now may be useful years down the road.

But other stem cell and regenerative medicine experts say today's sports stars shouldn't call their agents yet because much more research needs to be done before such treatments even approach reality.

Better Athletes Through Science?

Research on stem cells -- those cells in the body that can be nudged to develop into a wide variety of different tissues -- has actually been going on since the early 1960s.

However, recent advancements have brought the type of optimism that, some argue, hasn't been seen in scientific realms since the beginning of the atomic age.

The regenerative stem cell therapies that may one day help athletes heal mostly fall outside the debate over research on embryonic stem cells; in most cases, the cells used in sports medicine would come from other sources, such as umbilical cord blood or even the patients themselves.

Initial steps in stem cell therapy for athletes could be modest.

"The most likely short-term applications of stem cells would seem to be the enhancement of the healing response after injury and or surgery," said Dr. Rick Matsen, chair of orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Washington.

As an example, he said that stem cells may one day be used to help torn rotator cuffs heal more quickly. Stem cells may also be used to prompt quicker healing of stress fractures and muscle strains.

Still, some researchers are optimistic that sports medicine could reap the benefits of stem cells in the foreseeable future.

Dr. Johnny Huard, director of the Stem Cell Research Center of the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said his team has already conducted stem cell research that treats patients using their own muscle stem cells.

In this case, the patients were not athletes -- they were men with bladder problems. But he said the research demonstrates that these procedures are safe.

"When can we apply this to sports medicine? Time will tell us," he said. "But we believe that this is in our sight."

Others say future stem cell treatments could target knee joints and other problematic areas for athletes.

"In athletes, we will probably first see stem cells being used to treat meniscus injuries in the knee and tendon injuries," said Dr. Scott Rodeo, associate attending orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery and associate team physician for the New York Giants.

"We could also see it used in ligament reconstruction in the knee. ACL repair is a common operation -- typically you take part of a ligament from a donor site in the knee. Instead we might be able to use a patient's own cells to grow their own ligament. That would be cool."

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