There has been a lot of publicity about the reported stem cell treatment of NY Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon. According to several sources, Colon received his treatment in his native Dominican Republic.
Major League Baseball reportedly seems most concerned about this case, at least publicly, because human growth hormone (hGH) might have been used in the treatment. The doctor who provided the treatment, Joseph R. Purita, reportedly has used hGH in the past in these kind of procedures, but the doctor says he did not do so with Colon.
The far bigger issue not only for baseball but for all sports is not the potential involvement of hGH, but rather the prospect for a flood of professional athletes getting stem cell treatments. I’m a big proponent of stem cell research and I think it has great potential for future treatments for many conditions, but I do not think stem cell treatments for the most part are ready to be used now. The kind of treatment that Colon reportedly received is non-FDA approved, which means there is no scientific evidence of either its safety or efficacy.
The analogy I would use here is that the doctors and patients in this kind of situation are trying to win the World Series during Spring training. They are trying to achieve too much in a field, stem cell-based regenerative medicine, that is too young. As much as we all want to speed stem cell-based treatments to the huge number of patients who could benefit from them, caution and some degree of patience is in order. Stem cell-based treatments that have not gone through rigorous FDA review can be ineffective at best and at worst, lethal. We have seen that to be the case in Germany.
In case of the treatment that Colon received, reportedly transplanting stem cells in an autologous manner from fat and bone marrow into his elbow and shoulder, there is no real scientific basis for believing that treatment would do anything positive. While it is theoretically possible that the treatment could have helped, as a stem cell scientist I think that is not very likely and that more like Colon simply healed on his own.
While we are all excited about the potential of stem cells, jumping the gun and using stem cell treatments that have not been scientifically vetted is very dangerous. In our poll (you can still vote) on stem cell treatments recently, almost half of respondents said that if facing an incurable illness they might consider a non-FDA approved stem cell treatment. While for most of us when we think of that situation, we imagine a life-threatening disease such as cancer or a something very serious such as a spinal cord injury, for some athletes a chance to save their career is likely going to be enough of a motivation to try such treatments. In fact, it is inevitable with the publicity surrounding this case that other professional athletes, likely in larger numbers, will start traveling outside the U.S. to get unapproved stem cell treatments, especially if they believe it might save their career, but the reality is that it could cost them far more.
It may also very dangerously encourage young athletes with injuries and their parents to consider such treatments.