Putting the promise to the test: a new move to see if stem cell therapies can help injured athletes

One of the toughest questions we get asked, and we get asked this a lot, is a variation on the theme of “I have xxxx disease and want to know where I can get a stem cell therapy for it?” All too often, in fact pretty much all the time, we have to explain that there aren’t any therapies available, at least not yet, and that it might be a couple of years before any of the really promising projects we are funding are enrolling patients in a clinical trial.

Injured knee

But still the questions come in, fueled in part by all the clinics and centers out there claiming they can treat everything from rheumatoid arthritis to type 2 diabetes and Crohn’s disease. The biggest problem of course is that very few, if any, of these centers and physicians back up their claims with any evidence or studies to show that their treatments work. They have patient testimonials plastered all over their websites. They have lots of very reassuring sounding information, but no evidence or proof that anything they are doing will work.

Fortunately there are a growing number of researchers and reporters holding these clinics up to the light to see if what they are claiming could be true. In most cases the answer is a resounding “heck no.”

Just a week ago we told you about a couple of recent reports that looked at all the claims about using stem cells to treat sports injuries and whether there is anything to support claims by some cosmetic practitioners that they can use stem cell-based therapies to reverse the aging process (spoiler alert – there isn’t, otherwise I’d be first in line to try them out).

Cover of article about stem cells in Muscle and Medicine

Cover of article about stem cells in Muscle and Medicine

But now some mainstream media reporters are taking a closer look at claims these therapies are effective, particularly those associated with top-flight athletes. A recent issue of Muscle and Medicine – an online website that is part of the Sports Illustrated stable of publications – carried a really in-depth and thoughtful look at the use of stem cells to treat superstar athletes.

Writer Jenny Vrentas sets the tone in the opening paragraph saying:

“It may be the next big breakthrough in the treatment of sports ailments, but for now the use of such therapy is strictly limited in the U.S. – and questions about effectiveness outweigh the answers.”

Vrentas carries that questioning attitude throughout, highlighting some of the athletes who talk openly about procedures (we can’t really call them “treatments” because we don’t know if they actually treat anything) but also profiling orthopedic surgeon, James Andrews, who is a proponent of stem cells and is trying to do the kind of study necessary to see if these therapies work or not:

Andrews speaks carefully about the potential of stem-cell treatments. He’s hyper-aware of the danger of sensationalizing among his clientele of elite athletes, particularly since many questions remain—not the least of which is how well the treatments actually work. But the early returns have motivated him, as has seeing his top patients go abroad for therapy: “They don’t really know what they are getting,” he says. “Are they getting illegal stuff? We don’t have any control over it, so it’s something we needed to bring back and do in a controlled environment here.”

It’s an excellent example of the kind of reporting that can really help people, weekend warriors or anyone else, who are wondering whether stem cells might help them. It highlights the promise, but also underlines the fact that we need proof to back up that promise before it’s ready for prime time.

kevin mccormack