Stem Cell Sports Medicine 2.0: entering the red zone

What’s the scoop on stem cells and sports medicine?

So far the role of stem cells in sports medicine is essentially all hype.

We see sports stars getting stem cell treatments  that are not approved by the FDA and have little if any science behind them.

I covered stem cell sports medicine in an earlier post that provides more background, but things are rapidly getting worse and more dangerous in 2012.

Why are an increasing number of famous people including athletes getting stem cell transplants now?

First, it is human nature to look for a quick fix for what ails us so patients are providing a demand for stem cell therapies even if the technology is not yet ready for prime time. Throw in the fact that some of these people are injured pro athletes whose careers hang in the balance and it is no surprise they are turning to stem cells.

Second, a growing number of folks are trying to make money off of stem cell hype by providing non-FDA approved treatments to desperate patients. These purveyors of dubious stem cell treatments include real doctors, but also people who play doctors on the Internet.

More sports stars than ever are getting stem cell treatments that are not FDA approved and have no science behind them. For example, a new case of stem cell sports medicine involves Oakland Raider Football player Rolando McClain, who reportedly got stem cell therapy for various injuries and according to McClain he “feels a lot better.” How stem cell treatments of this kind could ease pain remains unknown and is not supported by hard, published science.

stem cell treatmentsAnother recent case is that of aging MLB pitcher C.J. Nitkowski (pictured above getting stem cells injected into him; photo credit CNN), who received a stem cell treatment that he hopes will allow him to continue his career. A year or so ago we talked about the case of another stem cell treated MLB pitcher, NY Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon, who received a stem cell treatment in the Dominican Republican. According to CNN, Nitkowski followed in Colon’s footsteps:

Nitkowski telephoned the doctor who treated Colon and agreed to pay about $3,000 for the procedure.

I wish these guys well and hope that the stem cell treatments they received do not harm them. However, the problems associated with famous people getting stem cell treatments go well beyond the dangers to themselves from the treatments.

When famous people such as sports stars and politicians (e.g. Texas Governor Rick Perry) get such dubious treatments they are absolutely encouraging every day people to get the same treatments, putting a lot more people at risk of not only losing their life savings to pay for the treatments, but also of great injury or even death.

These treatments are not necessarily safe and can be fatal. Each celebrity who gets such a treatment translates into many more everyday people, probably even little league pitchers, getting the same treatments. In essence all of these people are becoming human guinea pigs, part of a huge disorganized experiment without FDA approval.

An important message to the sports stars themselves is that there is absolutely zero reason to believe these treatments will work. I call it trying to win the world series in spring training. In other words, impossible and premature.  If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is and that applies to stem cell sports medicine. I’m a stem cell scientist and I have no vested interest in stem cell sports medicine either way, but let me tell you clearly that right now you have nothing to gain and everything to lose.

6 Comments


  1. It is important to vet these treatments with well-designed FDA-approved trials. You are doing service by warning of the dangers of too-good-to-be-true treatments . You mentioned they are based on “little or no science.” In terms of clinical studies that’s true. However, if they are based on mesenchymal stem cells (I’m not positive that they are), there is a basic science literature on this (for example, see “A Stem Cell-Based Approach to Cartilage Repair.” Science. 2012 Apr 5.) I’ve seen enthusiasm for MSC wax and wane over the years. I would be interested to hear your take on this field?


    • There is a great literature on MSCs themselves, but little in the way of pre-clinical literature that supports using adipose derived cells (who knows if these are MSCs depending on who does the purification and how) for the specific applications for which they are now being quite literally sold.
      In terms of MSCs themselves, I’ve heard Irv Weissman say he doesn’t believe they even exist.


  2. Numerous athletes have recieved different variations of stem cell treaments for skeletol muscle tissue. The results have been incredible and the majority have a success rate of 80%. You have to make sure that you get treated by a doctor that has the right training in the area. Platelet Rich Plasma injections have been given for over 30 years with success and micro-fracture surgical techniques have been used for the past 10 years at least. XXXXXXX

    (Note, this comment was edited to remove a link to a website promoting non-FDA approved treatments. It is against the policy of this blog specifically to include such links in comments. Links in general are welcome in comments).


  3. Dr. Knoepfler,
    I am pre-med student at Clemson University presenting on stem cells in a few weeks, and I am concentrating on the area of stem cell use in orthopedics and sports medicine. Obviously, there aren’t any approved treatments for stem cell injections, but I feel like their role in orthopedic surgery is immensely potential. If there were ways to engineer cells to speed up the recovery process, the ramifications are endless. I was wondering if you had any advice or resources that may be helpful in my orthopedic stem cell investigation. Thanks!


  4. It will be great for the public when stem cell companies and clinicians help their patients and clients by running registered clinical trials with all data reported. It would only take putting aside a fraction of the monies they have collected from patients for many years and hiring the necessary expertise to make this happen. It would also reduce the uncertainty and division.

    If interventions are shown to be effective in well run clinical trials that comply with regulatory standards and there is one voice about those standards there is nothing negative left to say. If they are not willing to this then I think other professionals and industry insiders will continue to have grave doubts about the genuineness of the claims.

    It will save the public a lot of heartache and extra pressure they do not need when clinical research is done and done right.Please also consider looking at the alltrialsnow initiative.

    Closed data hurts health care. In fact, after years of campaigning the issue has finally been drawn to the attention of the UK Parliament who are taking it very seriously. To ensure that they continue to do so, Sense about Science, the British Medical Journal and others launched a petition yesterday to request that legislation be considered to ensure all trials are published. You may care to sign this petition http://tiny.cc/m7srqwor, even better, tweet it.

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