Lately, Dr. Richard Obedian has noticed that stem cells have popped up again in the news thanks to NFL quarterback Peyton Manning undergoing the controversial treatment for a neck injury a little over two years ago. Now, after leading the Denver Broncos to Super Bowl XLVIII, many people, including Dr. Obedian, are asking the same questions.
Did stem cells serve to improve Manning’s injury and in turn aid him in his recent success? And if so, should everyone with an injury turn to stem cells for their recovery?
The Story Two Years Ago
According to a news story at the time from the Huffington Post, then-quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts Peyton Manning traveled to Europe in order to receive stem cell treatment for a neck injury sustained earlier in the season. The injury gave him a bulging disk in his neck, which he had attempted to correct several times throughout the year by undergoing more routine surgeries.
“Manning’s treatment is not approved in the United States,” the Huffington Post wrote. “[The procedure] involves using the four-time MVP’s own fat cells to regenerate the nerves around his neck.”
According to the New York Daily News, Manning then underwent yet another neck surgery after the stem cell treatment.
The Science of Stem Cells
“The idea behind adult stem cells is that they are able to grow into other cells for specific organs or tissues,” Dr. Richard Obedian said. “This makes them different from the embryonic stem cells that most people think of, which come from aborted fetuses or fertilized eggs. Embryonic stem cells can reportedly become specific cells for almost any tissue in the body.”
Popular Science reported that Manning’s treatment most likely utilized “induced pluripotent stem cells.” These cells can supposedly be reprogrammed to transform into any other type of cell in the body.
“First of all, the jury is still out on stem cells and their use in medicine,” Dr. Richard Obedian said. “Research is still ongoing to determine if stem cells can regenerate damaged or injured tissue or accelerate healing.”
It is this lack of scientific evidence backing up the procedure that caused many doctors to raise their eyebrows at Manning’s treatment.
“There are also concerns about the message Manning is sending to the public,” the Huffington Post reported. “People might go on to copy the procedure that might carry extra or unknown risks.”
As the director of the stem cell program at the University of California, Dr. Lawrence Goldstein said at the time, “There are many proposed therapies that are being tested in clinical trials, and there are more to come. But in the absence of reliable evidence, it is impossible to know whether the ‘treatment’ will make Manning better or worse or merely financially poorer.”
An Alternative Theory
That was two years ago. Now, Manning’s success at bringing his team to the upcoming Super Bowl seems to have erased any doubt that the procedure would do him harm. But the question remains, did the stem cell treatment itself actually aid in Manning’s recovery?
Dr. Richard Obedian said he believes he may have an answer, though some may consider it controversial. According to him, stem cells may indeed have helped in Manning’s recovery, although not in the way that conventional wisdom says that they did.
“Peyton Manning is an elite superstar athlete – one in a billion,” Dr. Richard Obedian said. “He may have recovered fully with the anterior cervical decompression and fusion surgery alone. But did the stem cells really make him heal faster or did they actually give him a psychological advantage?”
The first possibility, said Dr. Obedian, is that the stem cells actually delivered on their promise and contributed to a faster healing rate.
“Stem cells have tremendous promise in medicine,” he said. “One day, degenerated discs and articular cartilage can be repaired. One day, damaged spinal cords or damaged brain cells may regenerate. That is in the future, though.”
Alternatively, said Dr. Richard Obedian, the stem cells may have merely acted as a very powerful placebo, giving the NFL quarterback the belief or psychological mindset that he would make a full recovery.
“Stem cells may have merely made Peyton Manning more confident that he would return to his former self or even better,” he said. “Like the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ – Manning can be rebuilt and be even better than before.”
This mental edge can be very powerful in sports, where the state of mind of an athlete is often just as important as his or her physical condition. In a sport like professional football, one’s mental attitude is critical to their success.
“Perhaps the stem cells gave him a mental edge, and that is where their true power lies,” Dr. Obedian said. “Of course, that does not mean that the stem cells alone were the answer. He clearly required the surgery to allow him to heal.”
At the time, Manning’s treatment was controversial, because the FDA would not allow the procedure to be performed in the United States.
“One day, stem cell treatment may be the standard of care,” Dr. Richard Obedian said. “For now, we’re still waiting for randomized trials to see what their real impact is, if there is one.”