The human body has an extraordinary capacity for healing. With enough time and proper care, it can recover from all kinds of injuries. However, this process does not always work as quickly and as effectively as we would like. This is especially true for elite athletes whose lives revolve around being able to train and perform at the highest level, and even recreational athletes who would like to get back to their training regimen as soon as possible after an injury.
While injuries cannot be entirely avoided, scientists are currently working on cell-based therapeutics that will forever change the way they are treated. With the help of regenerative medicine, athletes will no longer be forced to slow down or leave the sport they love because of the repetitive stress caused by years of training. The best part is that these treatments do not require exogenous substances, they work with the patient’s own cells.
How cell-based treatments work
You may have heard of PRP (Platelet-Rich Plasma) injections. Elite athletes such as Tiger Woods and Rafael Nadal have used them to aid in their recovery when injured. The idea is that injecting a patient’s own platelets (cell fragments located in the blood) at the site of an injury will promote healing. The next generation of sports injury treatments take a similar approach but go even further with the use of live cells, which hold even greater promise.
A group of scientists in Canada and the UK have successfully isolated a type of skin cells, which are collagen-producing, from hair follicles, replicated them, and injected them directly at the site of injury using ultrasound imaging. These cells can then generate new tissue precisely where it is needed.
This treatment has been tested in patients suffering from a number of tendon injuries with positive outcomes. When used to treat lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow), scientists found decreases in tear number and tendon thickness as confirmed by ultrasound. Their findings were reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
In another study, aimed at treating patellar tendinopathy (wearing down of the tendon that connects the kneecap and the shinbone), researchers reported significantly greater improvement in pain and function than with plasma alone. These are some of the most frequent tendon injuries caused by overuse, and they affect tens of thousands of athletes each year.
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells
In addition to fibroblasts, other types of cells, such as Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs) are currently being investigated by researchers around the world with promising results. What makes these cells in particular so special is their potential to become any cell type in the body. They can be programmed to behave like tendon cells, called tenocytes. That is precisely what a team of Japanese researchers has done.
The scientists transplanted these cells into injured mice and found significant improvements in the regeneration of the damaged tendons. Their results were published in Scientific Reports. What this means is that soon, scientists will be able to take a sample of adult cells from a patient, like those collected from a few plucked hairs at Acorn, induce them to become pluripotent, and differentiate them into the exact cell type needed to treat an injury.
Mesenchymal Stem Cells
While these cells are more difficult to source than iPSCs (they are obtained from either bone marrow or umbilical cord tissue), they have shown great promise as well. In one study, published in Transplantation, Spanish scientists treated patients suffering from knee osteoarthritis with intra-articular injections of MSCs. They found an improvement in cartilage quality as well as algofunctional index scores, a parameter used to appraise the severity of symptoms.
How regenerative medicine is transforming healthcare as we know it
Considering that there are over 1,000 trials focused on regenerative medicine taking place at the moment, a number that will only increase in the coming months and years, it is clear that the future of healthcare will be cell-based. Doctors and scientists will not only be able to help athletes perform on the court, but also cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and even create organs on demand.
All of this begins with a single step: cell-banking. It is a convenient, painless, and affordable process that guarantees you will have a sample of the youngest and healthiest possible cells at your disposal whenever you require them in the future.