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KERBER: Stem Cells In Sports — Do We Know Enough?

Chris Kerber
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Medical Records & Stethoscope

A new generation of surgery appears to have arrived — and pro sports leagues had better take notice. 

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon underwent surgery last year that involved using stem cells to help regenerate tissue in Colon’s shoulder and elbow.  The crux of the story was the doctor who performed the procedure had used HGH in similar procedures before, but denies using HGH or other banned substances in Colon’s operation.  On the surface this appears to be another chapter in the ongoing steroid saga in baseball.  It’s not. MLB and the other sports leagues need to see through the banned substance screen and realize much bigger issues here. 

The HGH and steroid issue in this procedure must be addressed and it will be but it’s more than that.  Using stem cells to help regenerate tissue is not a proven procedure yet.  There are inherent risks to the operation and its success can be a gamble over more well known or used procedures.  Seeing the early success of Colon — who missed all of last season — will be intriguing, but teams must do their research.  It could become disastrous if players wind up taking these chances on their own — and having the procedure done in different parts of the world — without being completely educated on all aspects. 

Dr. Rick Lehman, a noted orthopedic surgeon who has worked with world class athletes from Olympians to NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL players, joined The Sports Hub to delve deeper into the impact this procedure will have on all levels of sports.  He says the impact will be huge. 

LISTEN: Dr. Lehman joins Chris Kerber and Mike Claiborne on The Sports Hub:

Dr. Lehman said he would have no problem using the stem cell procedure as a last resort to help save a career of an athlete, but not enough is known yet for him to recommend it before that point. Teams must know what is going on.  The athletes are essentially million dollar assets and procedures need a reasonable level of certainty when deciding on the right one. 

Other questions also exist.  Can this procedure be used on an aging yet fairly healthy athlete to extend his/her career?  What drugs are needed to make it a success?  If it can extend a career but some form of steroids or HGH are necessary, can a league approve it?  Are there legal ramifications if they do not?  Where are the surgeries performed and under whose supervision?  Will the use of this procedure and the medications necessary to ensure its success become a bargaining chip in CBA negotiations? 

And amongst many other intriguing and necessary questions, looms the hidden elephant in the room leagues will have to deal with.  Stem cell research and its use is as hotly a contested issue in the political and religious world as any issue and professional athletes using stem cell procedures will inevitably pull sports to the front and center of the debate.  They’d better be ready for it.  Let’s face it, the track record in sports means getting on top of major issues seems to take a back seat to immediate success and results.  They seem to ignore now and deal with consequences later.  Just look at the steroid issue in baseball, headshots in hockey and football, impact on health of former players in the NFL, etc. 

This is not witchcraft or something to be scared of.  It is a different medical procedure that may have tremendous use in the sports world.  If athletes 20-30 years ago had what is available today, how many careers would have been extended?  Would records have been broken or memorable moments made?  Who knows.  But plenty of relevant issues surround this one as it comes to light, and sports leagues needs to be aware, vigilant, and educated. 

Bartolo Colon has had a very good start to this season with the New York Yankees.  Good for him.  Just keep in mind: in this case right now, it’s not just the end result, but the how you got there that’s most important will have the biggest impact on sports.

Chris Kerber, the radio voice of the St. Louis Blues, hosts “The Sports Hub” weeknights from 9p-12a on KMOX.

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