Could Usain Bolt’s doctor be treating athletes with unproven stem cell treatments?
The idea is not so far-fetched, I was surprised to learn. Read on.
Bolt is an amazing sprinter. He’s a joy to watch.
The winner of multiple gold medals, Bolt says he wants to solidify his status as a legend. However, as remarkable as Bolt is, he is human and has had injuries. He has lost races. He’s also getting up there in years.
More recently he has also talked about how thankful he is for his “team” that supports him as a sprinter.
Today Bolt singled out for special thanks a German doctor named Dr. Hans Müller-Wohlfahrt, who also goes by the moniker “Healing Hans”.
Bolt called the doctor “the best doctor in the world, a great, great man.” Bolt reportedly first met the doctor when he was only 16 years old. Bolt’s coach brought Bolt all the way to Müller-Wohlfahrt’s flagship clinic in Germany at that very young age, which seems stunning to me.
Healing Hans (read more about him here on Wikipedia), whom I’ll just call HH here forth, is a controversial physician, but athletes including Bolt flock to him for treatments.
HH, who has clinics around the world in addition to the facility in Munich, Germany, injects patients with various unusual solutions to treat injuries. He claims to have done more than a million such injections.
For somewhat of a puff piece on HH see the YouTube video below.
HH is described as controversial (for example, see this ESPN article) at least in part because of what he is injecting into patients and the sometimes miraculous results he seems to get in athletes, who love the guy.
In the ESPN article, several specific athletes who are patients of HH are discussed and interviewed. For one patient, Meseret Defar of Ethiopia, HH reportedly said to her when giving her 8 different injections into her knee (emphasis mine):
“This is a relief for muscle and then the patella is not under stress so much and can regenerate.”
Note the key word in there “regenerate”.
Nowadays when doctors or clinics use that word they usually are referring to stem cell treatments. This raises the intriguing, perhaps potentially explosive question of whether any of HH’s injections include stem cells?
It’s unclear because just what goes into each syringe that HH uses to inject patients remains somewhat mysterious.
However, what HH is reported to have injected into patients is quite a remarkable array of substances including honey, calves’ blood, goat’s blood, and something called “Hyalart” extracted from the crest of cockerels. One ingredient in Hyalart is the chemical hyaluronic acid.
Reportedly HH’s most trusted medicine is Actovegin (isolated from goat’s blood), a substance ESPN says is illegal in America. Further, a Canadian doctor was charged a few years ago for giving athletes performance-enhancing drugs including Actovegin.
Could HH also be injecting Bolt or other athletes with stem cells?
It’s hard to know, but it is possible.
Another ESPN piece, a commentary, pulls no punches:
Healing Hans, as Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt is affectionately known, ranks as either the greatest healer since Hippocrates or is a quack with a hyperactive syringe, depending on whom you believe.
One British newspaper columnist, David Prentice (I don’t believe this is the same David Prentice known as a stem cell opponent here in the US), went so far as to call soccer (“football” in most of the world) stars treated by HH “suckers” in a piece in 2010.
Interestingly, in the same article, the writer talks about the soccer players storing stem cells from their newborn babies for potential future use themselves for sports injuries. He quoted one anonymous player in the following segment:
One player – unsurprisingly anonymous – explained: “We decided to store our new baby’s stem cells for possible future therapeutic reasons… as a footballer, if you’re prone to injury it can mean the end of your career, so having your stem cells – a repair kit if you like – on hand makes sense.”
I recently published a piece asking if there was stem cell doping in the Olympics. I think it is likely, but I remarked that I thought the problem was minor. Now I’m not so sure…
In another piece by Liz Porter at theage.com, it is reported that HH charges up to $20,000 per treatment.
Porter’s article in part focuses on a soccer team’s exercise physiologist, John Quinn, who is apparently a strong advocate of HH’s treatments. The article reports:
“As long as it is legal and isn’t going to hurt the player, clubs will try anything,” says Quinn.
Does that anything include stem cells?
Again, it is unclear, but the Porter article goes on to extensively discuss how soccer (European football) clubs are increasingly excited about their stars getting stem cell treatments.
In the Olympics, where the stakes are just as high or higher, I also believe that some athletes, coaches, and national team officials are likely willing to try anything. I imagine many of the athlete’s injected by HH have no idea what’s in the syringes he uses.
HH reportedly has a tight relationship with the Steadman Clinic here in the U.S. in Vail, Colorado and the related Steadman Philippon Research Institute, which apparently give stem cell treatments and reportedly hosted a meeting in Vail, Colorado that in part discussed regenerative treatments and stem cells.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with stem cell treatments or regenerative medicine. In fact I’m a big fan of the idea.
HH may be an amazing doctor who gets miraculous results, but I’m not so sure what is in his syringes. Also, as a biomedical scientist I don’t believe in miracles.
Further, if athletes including star players and Olympic athletes are getting such stem cell treatments, I think the public and the IOC wants to know about it. Governing bodies of other sports may also want to have stem cells on their radar.
Has Bolt himself received a stem cell treatment or is receiving such treatments even during the Olympics? I have no idea and I believe in “innocent until proven guilty”, but in this crazy mixed up world of sports stars and the Olympics, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.
Another interesting question: Is HH in London for the Olympics?
More broadly, the issue of stem cell sports medicine (see key background here) is exploding and is likely to be a dominant topic in coming years as well as a major issue at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.