Stem Cell Research and Pro Athletes

By Ryan McNeill

While searching around on the ‘net I found an interesting article in the Toronto Star called “Athletes Make Babies For Sport” where writer Randy Starkman talks about professional soccer players in Europe who have started to harvest stem cells from their newborn’s umbilical cord for doctors to use to treat career-threatening injuries.

Starkman begins the article by writing:

It looms as the ultimate “repair kit” for elite athletes — stem cells harvested from their newborn’s umbilical cord used to treat career-threatening injuries. The Sunday Times reported recently that at least five professional soccer players in England have had stem cells from the blood of their children’s umbilical cords frozen. It’s being done to protect their progeny in the event of future illness, but is also seen by some of the athletes as a potential aid to fix their own damaged cartilage and ligaments in the future.

Adding to my intrigue was one of the five professional athletes who signed up for this program who told Reuters that:

We decided to store our new baby’s stem cells for possible future therapeutic reasons, both for our children and possibly for myself. 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.

After reading through this article this topic grabbed my attention so I decided to do a little bit of research on the ‘net. After looking around on Google I came across an interesting article in Science Daily from May that reported:

When the researchers implanted these cells into torn Achilles tendons of rats they found that the cells not only survived the implantation process, but also were recruited to the site of the injury and were able to repair the tendon. The cells changed their appearance to look more like tendon cells (tenocytes), and significantly increased production of collagen, a protein critical for creating strong yet flexible tendons and ligaments.

After reading Starkman’s article in The Toronto Star and then this article from Science Daily I have to admit that I’m shocked people would allow doctors to do this kind of medical procedure to their bodies. I’m not even talking from the perspective of doping to gain an athletic advantage like Starkman talked about in his article, I’m talking about the ethical issue of using part of your child’s stem cells in order to repair your body.

Someone who agrees with me is Dr. Renn Crichlow, a former world champion kayaker for Canada who works as an orthopaedic surgeon in Indianapolis. He has major issues with the ethics of athletes using stem cells that have been stored for their children’s future health and Crichlow told Starkman that:

It’s different when you’re harvesting or you’re potentially saving the stem cells to save the child’s life if they got leukemia or advanced liver disease, but to prolong your career in sport after you’ve had a potential irrecoverable injury, that’s losing sight of what sport’s supposed to be about. It’s saving the kid’s cord blood to produce hyper-performance.

The other person to step up and mention the ethics of this situation was Paul Melia, who is the President and CEO for the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports. Melia told Starkman that:

We’re going to be concerned if people start having children to have spare parts on hand, shall we say, if things go wrong. Setting that concern aside, I don’t know if it would be unethical if it was stored for the child and was also used by the parents. From a doping perspective, there’s the use of stored materials for therapeutic repair versus genetic enhancement. Gene therapy that brings things to a normal state is fine. But what happens when that genetic therapy is being used to enhance human capacity, say to create more fast-twist muscle fibre in a sprinter? That would be considered a doping method versus a repair.

When I read this quote from Melia I chuckled to myself because I found that idea too far fetched but after re-reading this quote I got a chill down my spine when I realized that it is likely that pro athletes would abuse this procedure. When there are millions of dollars at stake grown men (and woman) have been know to do things that may seem irrational and are things that go against their normal moral compass. When faced with retiring or inking another contract after undergoing this kind of procedure I’m worried that countless pro athletes would jump at the opportunity to try this experimental procedure out.

Which brings me to my next point – all of the data has only been compiled so far has only been on horses, not humans. Innovations Report had an article on their website earlier this year which states:

Like human athletes, competitive horses are vulnerable to joint injuries, especially tendon. Performance horses, like human athletes, are often pushed to their limits and this can lead to tendon or ligament injury. Injury to tendons is healed by extensive scar tissue, which limits the tendon’s normal role. The scar tissue impairs movement and is stronger than normal tendon, so does not stretch in the same way as normal tendon. In turn, this is likely lead to further lameness. But, using the new technique to reduce the scar tissue formation caused by injury, and even regenerate damaged tendons, which is notoriously difficult in horses, can lead to complete recovery. The stem cell treatment is unique as it uses tissues to grow more tendon-like cells.

Later in that same article they wrote that:

It is possible that similar repair mechanisms can be instituted in humans as well. The researchers are looking at ways that the technology can be transferred to humans to treat conditions that affect tendons and ligaments such as Achilles tendonitis, a painful and often debilitating inflammation of the Achilles tendon, which can make even walking impossible.

Would you be willing to sacrifice your body in the name of science? I sure wouldn’t and I’m sure these companies are having a tough time finding someone to be the sacrificial lamb in this experiment.

The one argument in Starkman’s article in favour of this medical procedure that I agreed with came from Dr. Doug Richards, a former Toronto Raptors physician who runs the McIntosh sports medicine clinic at the University of Toronto, who told Starkman that:

There’s a kid who’s giving 70 per cent of his liver to his father in the hospital (in Toronto). What if he could say, `Want some stem cells from my umbilical cord blood, we can grow you a new liver here?’ Which is preferable? Is it ethical to give his father his liver surgically but not to have some of his umbilical cord blood?

When the use of stem cells is shown in this light it starts to make sense because rather than being used to prolonged an athletic career so that one can make more money, stem cell research would then be used for “good” in that it would help prolong someone’s life. However, I have a problem with the use of stem cells because I feel as humans we are still trying to play God and I fail to see the difference in this situation between scientific advancement and playing God.

While tendon and ligament injuries are a major problem for athletes – at least 200,000 patients undergo tendon or ligament repair each year – I question whether stem cells is the proper way to go about treating these injuries.

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2 thoughts on “Stem Cell Research and Pro Athletes

  1. Something I would add to the final quote of this article:
    The human liver is one of the few organs that does possess the ability to regrow.

    So, they boy giving his father 70% of his liver will likely have a chance at a complete recovery, assuming he is otherwise healthy.

    That sort of throws a wrench in the point that the good Doctor makes.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my article Grover! I gotta’ admit that I’m just an elementary school teacher so I didn’t catch this mistake by Doug Richards… and perhaps I slept through that Physiology lecture in university…oops!

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