Sports Medicine Miracles?

And one company is currently in the early phases of a clinical trial for a new technique to repair the meniscus -- a crucial wedge of cartilage in the knee joint.

"So far it's been very safe," said Randall Mills, CEO of Osiris Therapeutics. Although the trial is still in its early stages, he said these therapies may one day allow athletes to heal more completely and faster than ever before.

"Stem cell therapy is much closer than people think," he said. "Once that happens, it's really going to open up the door for large-scale stem cell therapies to invade into other areas and become part of the armament of sports medicine physicians."

Treatments Still Highly Speculative

But the meniscus project's researcher Dr. Tom Vangsness, professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, said that though initial steps appear promising, researchers are still a long way from practical application of stem cells in sports medicine.

"We have only been playing with [stem cells] for a few years now," he said. "We don't know what they can do yet, in all honesty. The FDA will not in the near foreseeable future allow any human application of stem cells in sports medicine."

Other researchers agree that many hurdles remain before treatments become widely available.

"Even after a tissue has been generated outside the body, one still has the challenge of getting it in place and assuring that it becomes functional," Matsen said. "The bottom line is that there is much research to be done to explore the effectiveness of stem cell technologies in solving the cartilage, ligament, tendon and bone injuries we face in athletes and in all active individuals."

These and other complexities could mean years of research before practical applications are seen.

"In five years, the hope is to be engaged in meaningful clinical trials," Rodeo said. "There are safety issues we still need to work out."

At the earliest, he said, it would take two to three years for legitimate treatments to follow successful clinical trial results.

"We're not at the point where we can make recommendations for stem cell treatment on a routine basis. Eventually, the answer may be yes. The cells have tremendous potential to regenerate things that don't really heal."

Some Athletes May Not Wait

Some athletes may already be taking steps toward stem cell solutions, even though no definitive research exists.

Stem cell banks already offer their services in freezing and storing adult stem cells for the possibility of later therapeutic use.

"Absolutely it is logical," Huard said, adding that stem cell banking for young children who show athletic potential should be considered.

But the potential of stem cells in sports medicine has a worrying side as well. Vangsness said that if promising preliminary results come out of early trials, some athletes may look to reap their benefits before they are approved in the United States -- or even proven safe.

"Professional athletes are privileged," he said. "They have money, and they have access to certain things that the rest of us do not."

Huard said that once the technology matures, there may even be a possibility that some could see stem cells as the next steroids.

"We're not there yet, but I am already thinking that some people would be interested to do that," he said.

Still, the greatest danger that exists for the time being, Vangsness said, is the possibility that stem cell therapy in sports medicine could be oversold -- even before it has become a reality.

"We want to be absolutely responsible in terms of what we are saying to the public," he said. "People are really tuned in to this, and they are desperate in many ways. This is not a panacea, but still, it is clearly the most exciting frontier in medical science that we have ever seen."

ABC News Medical Unit intern Junko Takeshita contributed to this article.

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