Injured Argentine winger Angel Di Maria may be resorting to unproven stem cell therapy


Referee Nicola Rizzoli requests a stretcher as Argentina's Angel Di Maria lies on the pitch after he was injured during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Argentina and Belgium on July 5. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

I'm not betting on it, but if, by some miracle, Argentine winger Angel Di Maria is on the pitch against Germany Sunday in the 2014 World Cup final, get ready for another explosion of interest in stem cell therapy, a now familiar occurrence every time a famous athlete undergoes the treatment.

Di Maria, who either tore or strained a thigh muscle in Argentina's World Cup win over Belgium, is so determined to play in the final that, according to some reports, he is having the muscle injected with stem cells in the hope of healing by Sunday. (This Associated Press report from Thursday said he was practicing at 60 to 80 percent, so I'm guessing we're talking about a strain.)

If those reports are true, Di Maria will join a long line of elite athletes who have resorted to the unproven and possibly risky therapy. This kind of stem cell therapy is experimental in every sense of the word, according to the International Society for Stem Cell Research. There also is some evidence that the procedure can promote tumor growth or create an immune response to a patient's own cells, or that injected stem cells might migrate to another part of the body.

Never mind. There is soccer to be played!

No one denies that stem cells hold promise as a therapy down the road, perhaps in as little as five or 10 years, says Kevin McCormack, communication director for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. With $3 billion supplied by voters in a 2004 ballot initiative, the organization is funding trials of the use of stem cell therapies for scarring after heart attacks, sickle cell anemia, leukemia and other conditions.

But for now, stem cells are known to be effective only for certain disorders of the blood, immune system and bone marrow. Beyond that, little has been proven, although clinics in the United States and around the world are offering the therapy -- and raking in bucks from desperate patients.

Di Maria may even see some benefits, McCormack said. "In theory, they might [help] because they may have an anti-inflammatory effect or they may stimulate the body's own natural healing," he said. "But the problem is that they haven't done any research to prove that."

The stem cells are harvested from a patient's bone marrow and sometimes run through a centrifuge to concentrate them. Then they are injected into the damaged tissue.

For athletes, who are always looking for ways to prolong their careers and bounce back from injury, the fad began in 2010, when Major League pitcher Bartolo Colon had a slurry of stem cells that can turn into a variety of tissues injected into his injured elbow and shoulder. Within months, he was throwing 93 mile per hour fastballs for the New York Yankees. Later, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the most famous athletes in the United States, reportedly had stem cell therapy on his injured neck.

McCormack and others express concern that when pro athletes and other celebrities have unproven treatments, it sends the rest of us weekend warriors out in search of the same. Here a good bit of blame goes to us in the media. A 2012 analysis conducted for the journal Molecular Therapy showed that 72.7 percent of the media coverage of athletes and stem cell  therapy didn't address whether the treatment works, and 42 percent referred to alleged benefits. Only 5.7 percent of the stories brought up possible safety issues and risks.

 

So consider this my contribution, at least until further testing validates the value of stem cells as a treatment for what ails athletes.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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Lenny Bernstein | July 11