By Taylor Bloom
SportTechie

Since 1974 when Dr. Frank Jobe invented Tommy John Surgery and changed a UCL tear from a career death sentence to a 12- to 18-month rehab assignment, many other procedures and devices have helped athletes return quicker from injury. A prime example of this medical tech is the anti-gravity treadmill that Kobe Bryant has used during his rehab from an Achilles rupture he sustained in April.

The latest medical advancement that could impact sports world is stem cell therapy.

In Los Angeles, Dr. Rajagopalan (Dr. Raj), an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports and fitness procedures, is performing a unique stem cell harvesting procedure somewhat similar to the treatment Kobe and other athletes have gone to Germany for. They have their blood drawn, spun in a centrifuge and reinjected into the knee, with the goal of reducing inflammation.

This procedure can help with many different injuries such as, muscle sprains and strains, tendon inflammation, fractured bones, arthrities and degenerative disc disease. Dr. Raj explains exactly how this new stem cell therapy procedure works:

Stem cell therapy is being used around the world to regenerate or re-grow tissue in one's body that could not regenerate itself without having harvested and injected from one's own cells.

For example, many people suffer with torn cartilage called meniscus in the knee. It was thought in the recent past that the only modality of treatment was to cut the tissue out arthroscopically or to temporarily numb the area with cortisone injections. Now we have the ability to regenerate the tissue back to its original state before the damage occurred, and avoid surgery with immediate pain relief.

The key for athletes here is replacing surgery and long recovery times with immediate relief. The ability to repair an injury while avoiding the scalpel is invaluable for players and the franchises and fan bases that support them. And not only does it save time for athletes, in some cases it can save them a lot of money.

Take Andrew Bynum, for example. When he was drafted 10th overall by the Lakers in 2005, he became the youngest player (18 years and 6 days) ever in NBA history to play a game. He was gifted with great size and a soft touch around the rim but not with reliable knees. Last year he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers but ended up not playing a single game due to chronic knee issues. After a lengthy rehab he signed a contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The contract is for $24.6 million over two years, but only $6 million of this is guaranteed. Bynum will have to show he can play and keep his knees healthy to earn the entire amount.

Bynum is a member of a long list of athletes who began their careers with all the physical gifts necessary to become a great player but were unable to consistently produce for a team due to chronic injuries. These nagging injuries are exactly where Dr. Raj's new stem cell therapy procedure has so much potential in the sports world. In some cases it can help with persistent injuries and in Andrew Bynum's case it can potentially make him around $18 million.

Dr. Raj explains the exact process of this procedure and how it is very quick and relatively painless:

The process of getting stem cell therapy starts with harvesting your own stem cells (autologous cells) from your bone marrow. This process only takes about 5 minutes and most patients report only feeling a little pressure during the aspiration. Then your bone marrow gets spun in a centrifuge for 15 minutes allowing the undifferentiated mesenchymal stem cells to separate from the platelets and blood. Our highly trained orthopedic surgeon then will inject your own stem cells into the joint or damaged tissue.

These mesenchymal stem cells have the ability to turn into cartilage, ligament, tendon, bone, nerve tissue, blood vessels, or muscle tissue. These cells find the area of damage, lock onto the DNA and read the code that tells them what to reproduce into. Because your body is preprogrammed with a genetic code the stem cells know exactly what to turn into and can only grow the same tissue you would have had before the damage. For example, you will not be able to grow more cartilage than your genetic code gave you during the peak years of your life.

Dr. Raj is not the only orthopedic surgeon performing this procedure in the U.S. "At this point many doctors over different specialities have been trained in this procedure but it important to remember that a board certified orthopedic surgeon can properly determine if stem cell therapy is the best option or surgery. Regular medical doctors may not be able to give a proper diagnosis."

Many sports fans who hear about this procedure that uses an athlete’s own cells to treat their injuries immediately think of the treatments Kobe has been famously flying to Germany to receive. But there are clear distinctions between the treatment Kobe has been getting to help his right knee (a knee which has logged the 12th most minutes in NBA history) and this stem cell therapy procedure.

“Kobe has been receiving regenerative treatments including PRP (platelet-rich plasma)," Dr. Raj says. "Our treatment has more healing properties than PRP because we get the stem cells from bone marrow instead of blood. PRP has to be done many times and stem cell injections from bone marrow are a one time treatment."

Considering the healing potential of this procedure, it may be surprising to some that it has been slow to catch on in the U.S. But for Dr. Raj there is a clear reason for this: “Due to the lack of government funding from the Bush administration, we did not have the same research happening in our universities as other countries. President Obama granted government funding in Dec. of 2010 and we are now advancing quicker than most countries. You will see stem cell therapy become main stream over the next few years."

While Dr. Raj has privately performed this procedure on many athletes, it is mainly used to help treat the injuries and aches and pains of the average weekend warrior who is not in elite physical shape. So this story came across our sports tech radar when it was announced that Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe would undergo this procedure himself.

This is significant because Dr. Vandeweghe has quite the sports and medical background. He was drafted in 1949 by the Knicks and went on to play six years in the NBA while concurrently going to medical school at Columbia. He was the Lakers' first physician when the team moved to Los Angeles in 1960 and according to ESPN LA’s Arash Markazi, “If it hadn’t been for Dr. Vandeweghe, Chick Hearn wouldn't have been the Lakers' play-by-play announcer, the Forum probably would have been located somewhere in the San Fernando Valley and the Lakers might never have become Hollywood's team."

In addition to his playing career with the Knicks and a physician job with the Lakers Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe, 84, is also a former orthopedic surgeon at the UCLA Medical School. It would be difficult to find anyone else who has a career and a life that represents the intersection of sports and medicine more than Dr. Vandeweghe. Dr. Raj considers this a huge vote of confidence for stem cell therapy:

Dr. Vandeweghe is a role model in the sports world and an educated physician, so having him undergo the procedure shows he is a credible advocate for stem cell therapy. It is safe, effective, and can work for even a man Ernie's age.

Few professions in the world place such monetary and cultural value on physical performance as being a pro athlete. And in a must-have-now, texting, tweeting, and snapchatting world, sports events are extremely valuable because they are DVR-proof. Thus, television contracts, ticket prices and player salaries have all increased in recent history.

With these increases and the proximity that the rise of social media has created between players and fans comes added pressure on athletes, coaches and teams to be successful. Advances in sports medicine, such as Dr. Raj’s stem cell procedure, can help athletes respond to this pressure by keeping them healthy (in a legal and natural way).

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