14-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal is to undergo stem cell treatment on his back. Nadal, who has recently undergone surgery to remove his appendix, will require further surgery to try and regenerate cartilage in his back in a similar way to the treatment he received on his knee last year. Nadal has had his stem cells removed recently for cultivation which will subsequently be injected into a joint in his spine.
Stem cell treatments for athletes use the adult stem cells that we all have in our own bodies. These are the unspecialised cells that have the ability to produce new cells but restricted to cell types found within that tissue type, mature into these differentiated cell types and mobilise in response to an injury. For example, orthopaedic surgeons are particularly interested in mesenchymal stem cells, found in sources such as bone marrow and fat tissue, which can become new bone, cartilage, muscle or connective tissue—the cogs in the machines of athletes’ bodies. Currently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits this treatment to the injection of the unaltered harvested cells directly to the site of the injury. International labs often culture the cells taken from a player’s body of a 10-14 day period. Rather than harvesting around 10,000 cells they are able to yield around 2 million.
Doing some research and reading on this, I’ve been surprised at how common this is, with several NFL and MBL players reported to have used this ‘treatment’ to shorten time out through injury, but does it actually work? It’s not such a safe bet in my opinion and some professional athletes’ enthusiasm for certain stem cell treatments outpaces the evidence. Numerous studies suggest trying untested stem cell treatments may be risking more than they think. Even a syringe of one’s own stem cells taken from one part of the body and squirted into another “may multiply, form tumors, or may leave the site you put them in and migrate somewhere else”.
I think this will be the future of sports medicine as well as clinical medicine in the future but for now, I’d give it a miss!