Sports Medicine Turns to Stem Cell 'Repair Kits'

International Herald Tribune—NEW YORK—March 20, 2007

The latest curative leap to heal professional athletes and weekend warriors alike may sound like science fiction, but it could transform sports medicine.

Doctors and researchers say that in a few years the use of primitive stem cells from infants' umbilical cord blood could grow new knee ligaments or elbow tendons, creating a gene therapy that becomes the vanguard of sports injury repair.

Already, some sports agents are preparing to advise clients about banking stem cells from their offspring or from tissue taken from their own bodies as an insurance policy against a career-ending infirmity. Stem cell blood banks are touting the benefits of stem cell therapies for the practical healing and rehabilitation of tendons, ligaments, muscle and cartilage. There are skeptics in the medical community, but the therapies have enthusiastic advocates as well.

"It's not a pie in the sky notion," said Dr. Scott A. Rodeo, an orthopedist and research scientist at Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. "Maybe it's not going to happen next year, but a three-to-five year horizon is not unreasonable."

Rodeo has already practiced these technologies in laboratory surgeries on rats, especially when reconstructing the knee's anterior cruciate ligament and the shoulder's rotator cuff. Both are common sports maladies that can be particularly daunting to surgeons because the body generally does not mend or restore the damaged tissue after these injuries.

"In each case, stem cells clearly have some beneficial role in inducing tissue regeneration," said Rodeo, who is also a physician with the New York Giants football team and a former United States Olympic team doctor.

Some scientists say now is the time to safeguard athletic prodigies, even kindergarteners.

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