More science than sci-fi
It sounds like the stuff of
"Using these cells can really revolutionize how sports injuries and trauma will be treated," says
First things first: The cells scientists are using for this technology aren't extracted from embryos and have nothing to do with cloning. "[
Mesoblast says that it injected MPCs into 10 people who had suffered complete breaks of the femur or tibia and that seven healed in less than one third the initially projected recovery time. Says Hare, who has no relationship to Mesoblast and is himself administering a clinical trial for mesenchymal stem cell use in heart attack patients, "A major discovery that was made about these mesenchymal stem cells is that they tell the immune system to be tolerant of this particular cell."
A second type of stem cell therapy that is gaining proponents in sports applications is autologous treatment -- reimplanting the cells extracted from one's own body.
But Mesoblast and Angioblast are conducting FDA-approved trials for what they are calling "off-the-shelf" stem cells, which are cultivated from universal donors (volunteers, usually in their 20s, who undergo extensive screening). The hope is that this process will be inexpensive and accessible through a prescription in as little as three years. The treatment is intended for therapeutic use among the general population, but Mesoblast says it has been contacted by at least two Australian Rules Football clubs and several professional athletes from the U.S. "Whether it's football or baseball," says Schuster, "if they're looking for that slight advantage or quick recovery for a rotator-cuff injury or bone repair, this might be that edge."
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto found that injecting stem cells isolated from the skeletal muscle of women with urinary incontinence into the area surrounding the urethra strengthened their sphincter muscles. Based in part on that study,
What about muscles that aren't injured? What about athletes with healthy muscles who are simply looking to get stronger?
Though stem-cell research is clearly in the early stages, antidoping agencies nevertheless have taken notice. Huard was contacted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) more than two years ago to help develop tests to detect stem cell doping from both autologous and donor cells. If athletes were to use cells from a donor, detection would be possible, according to Itescu. "You can detect other people's DNA in your bloodstream with routine screening." But the process would be expensive, and testing of an athlete's DNA is a long way off for both practical and ethical reasons. The process also wouldn't work if athletes used their own cells. "We have no way of detecting that you have injected a cell from you to you," says Huard.
Hare, for one, doesn't see athletes abusing stem cell therapy. "I think you'd have to be crazy to inject this into yourself," he says.