Rethinking Healthcare

Yankees pitcher's stem cell therapy didn't endow superhuman powers

Posting in Technology

Bartolo Colon had stem cells extracted and re-injected to fix the torn rotator cuff in his pitching arm. An investigative report says it was restorative, not enhancing. MLB is "looking into it."

Bartolo Colon, a pitcher for the New York Yankees, underwent a semi-experimental procedure in the Dominican Republic last spring.

In order to regenerate and repair tissue that had been torn, he had stem cells extracted from his bone marrow and fatty tissue and then re-injected into his elbow and shoulder.

Colon was an elite hurler before age, injuries, and workload took their gradual toll on his right shoulder. He hadn't appeared in more than 19 games since 2005, when he partially tore the rotator cuff in his pitching arm, a group of muscles and tendons that stabilize the shoulder. He missed the entire 2010 season thanks to recurring bone spurs in his elbow.

This January, he signed a one-year, $900,000 contract with the Yankees and is back throwing pitches at 95 miles an hour.

And his resurgence has increased demand for the controversial procedure that utilizes stem cells to treat injured athletes.

Ten other pitchers have expressed interest, according to Leonel Liriano, one of the doctors who assisted the procedure and medical director of the Florida-based Regenocyte, which does most of its work in the Dominican Republic.

Recently, Colon has been at the center of a Major League Baseball investigation. Does such stem cell treatment qualify as a performance enhancing drug?

New Scientist investigated, and finds, no: the treatment was probably restorative, and does not endow people with “superhuman” powers.

“This is not hocus-pocus,” says Joseph Purita, an orthopedic surgeon from Boca Raton who was part of Colon’s medical team. “This is the future of sports medicine, in particular.”

Purita has used the MLB-banned human growth hormone (HGH) in such treatments before. However, he says that Colon’s revival has everything to do with the injection of stem cells into his elbow and shoulder and nothing to do with HGH.

  1. First, a tissue sample containing mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) is extracted from the patient's bone marrow and fatty tissue.
  2. After isolating the stem cells, they’re injected into the site of injury.
  3. The next step is a little fuzzy. Either the stem cells become new tendon and muscle tissue themselves, or they release growth factors that encourage resident tendon and muscle cells to proliferate at the injured site.

If the MSCs do grow into a new body part, can they regrow it so effectively that they endow it with enhanced abilities? Purita says there’s no research in people on whether stem cell therapy improves tendon or joint performance beyond pre-injury abilities.

We do, however, know a little more about stem cell injection therapy in horses.

When horses with tendon injuries receive conventional treatment, between 50 and 60% re-injure themselves. But in 141 racehorses who received stem cell therapy, the rate of re-injury dropped to 27.4%, according to a study published in Equine Veterinary Journal last month.

MediVet America, which opened in Kentucky earlier this year, is already treating horses at up to $2,400 a pop. Although, the practice, especially as it pertains to injured tendons, wasn’t introduced for human use until 2009, when MedCell Bioscience announced it would begin treating patients in such a way, Wired reports.

In the treated horses, the tendons are as elastic as they were before injury, but they don’t gain superequine powers, says study author Roger Smith of the Royal Veterinary College.

If this holds true for people, then Colon's surgery probably restored his rotator cuff to its former glory, New Scientist concludes, without granting the athlete any talents he didn't possess before his injuries.

Image by Keith Allison via Wikimedia

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure