On stem cells, athletics and the world series (Go Giants!)

Today the San Francisco Giants will be celebrating their World Series victory with a parade that will draw hundreds of thousands of fans to AT&T park, directly across the street from CIRM headquarters.

With sports so much on our minds here at CIRM, this seems like a good day to talk about stem cells in athletics. The topic made news recently thanks to a story written by Timothy Caulfield in The Atlantic. Caulfield, who is a professor at the Faculty of Law and School of Public Health, University of Alberta, is a long-time follower of stem cell research, particularly the trend of stem cell tourism where people travel overseas for unproven stem cell injections.

One point I was glad to see him make is the question of what, exactly, is a “stem cell treatment”? It’s a pretty generic term for a wide range possible treatments. A bone marrow transplant is by far the most common stem cell therapy because it replaces a person’s own blood-forming stem cells with donor stem cells that recreate the person’s blood system. This type of stem cell transplant is commonly used to treat blood disorders like leukemia. Other types of stem cell therapies in development involve transplanting neural stem cells to treat brain disorders and transplanting cells derived from embyonic or iPS cells to treat a wide range of diseases. There is no one “stem cell treatment”.

In the case of sports, most so-called stem cell treatments are really just a matter of taking tissue from one part of the body (fat, for example) and injecting it somewhere else (like a shoulder, knee or elbow). Whether or not stem cells are actually involved is unclear. As Caulfield writes:

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.”

He goes on to blame the media for talking up the athlete’s treatments as “stem cell therapies”, suggesting that these stories help market unproven, unregulated clinics overseas. For those who haven’t been following stem cell tourism, we have more information on our website and recently shot this short video with stem cell scientist Larry Goldstein at UCSD:

Despite his concerns about overblown claims among athletes, Caulfield says he’s optimistic about the field of stem cell research.

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.

And on that note, we’re enjoying the giants victory and the cheering crowds outside our offices. And we’re looking forward to the day when stem cell therapies are available for both critical conditions like diabetes, blindness, and Altzheimer’s disease as well as for athletic injuries.

A.A.

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