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Stem cells, the way to a sporting future

india Updated: Aug 24, 2009 16:52 IST
Ajai Masand
Ajai Masand
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

As the world’s top athletes converge in Berlin for the World Championships, the fear of injuring themselves while trying to go that extra mile will be playing on their minds. Injuries have always been part and parcel of sport, it takes one false move to end careers.

But that could soon change.

It may sound a little far-fetched, but a future where sportspersons prepare a ‘bank’ of stem cells from their own tissues, or even their children, to insure themselves against a career-ending injury could well be on the horizon.

Sample this: The Sunday Times, London, recently reported that five footballers had their children’s stem cells frozen at birth and stored in a Liverpool stem cell bank. The purpose? To act as a potential repair kit for a career-threatening injury.

Sportspersons being forced to cut their careers short because of injury is not a recent phenomenon, but, judging the rapid pace at which stem cell research is developing, there could be a ray of hope for injured sportspersons, providing them a chance of prolonging their careers.

“Stem cell is the future of medicine. Because of its high potential, it is being tried and researched on a number of ailments. But at present it is being used for those who have no other option, like those afflicted with spinal cord injuries who have become paraplegics,” says Karan Goel, chairman of the Stem Cell Global Foundation.

“There are people with Achilles’ tendon, ligament and muscle ruptures who have received stem cell treatment abroad as it has a high therapeutic potential but for now it is not recognised or approved as a treatment measure for such injuries or ailments,” Goel says.

International research has been making rapid strides, and, in a few years, the use of primitive stem cells from infants’ umbilical cord blood could help grow new knee ligaments or elbow or elbow tendons, creating a gene therapy that would become the vanguard of sports injury repair.

“Spinal cord injuries have been effectively treated in stem cells. The autologous stem cells derived from the bone marrow of the injured person are being used for treatment,” says Goel. “They take the stem cells from the bone marrow of the patient, process it to extract the stem cells and inject them directly into the site of the spinal cord injury.”

Lifebank USA - the pioneers in stem cell research - offers people the chance to enrol themselves to have their babies’ umbilical cord blood and placenta cells stored to be used in the event of an injury or ailment.

“Cord blood banking is like a bio-insurance where parents can preserve the stem cells of their babies for 21 years, so that if anyone in the immediate family gets injured or suffers from an incurable disorder, the stem cells can be used for treatment.

“Usually the umbilical cord is thrown away. But the blood from the same can be collected and sent to cord blood banks, where it is processed and stored in liquid nitrogen,” says Goel.

Research has shown that stem cell therapies could do more than refurbish joints, they could help build muscle in athletes and increase other physical capacities at a pace not conventionally attainable.

“It will, though, take some time before this becomes an integral part of our surgical procedures,” says Goel.

He, however, says that there are supplements that have the potential to stimulate the release of more stem cells from bone marrow to the blood and increase energy levels. “There are companies in India as well preparing these stem-enhancers. So, definitely things are changing.”