To find the future of sports medicine, head to the Andrews Institute and inside the Athletic Performance & Research Pavilion, past the bespectacled, lab-coat wearing wooden pelican in the lobby. Take the elevator up one floor, turn right and traverse the long hallway. Don’t miss the sign—“Regenerative Medicine Center”—written in small letters on the door. That’s it. No blinking neon bat signal announcing: Behold, three rooms that could change sports!
Of the hundreds of doctors, therapists and clinicians who work for the renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, only five know the code that opens the door. One is Adam Anz, a doctor whose angled face and long, brown hair suggest a swapped-at-birth Wilson brother who chose medicine over movies. He strides down the hallway, each step closer to the entrance and thus the future, glances left and right, then punches in the code.
Anz, 36, dons blue scrubs and tucks his wavy locks into a teal surgical cap before entering the most sterile of laboratories. He proceeds to the far back corner, where near the red can labeled “biohazard” there rests an oversized steel tub stamped ominously with “Liquid Nitrogen Vapor Freeze Freezer.” Anz opens the lid and wisps of white haze curl toward the ceiling. “Liquid nitrogen isn’t the safest thing in the world,” he says, as he reaches inside, grabbing containers filled with 40 small vials apiece. Each vial holds about four milliliters of stem cells and all their magical potential.
A quick science lesson: At a basic level, stem cells respond to stress and heal injuries. They’re the key to the human body’s internal repair system. They replenish adult tissues. How they work is so complex that doctors aren’t even exactly sure, but what’s important is that stem cells can monitor, respond, divide, heal and release other molecules to tell other cells how to help aid in in healing. Because they’re so adaptable—a five-tool cell—scientists think they’re capable of everything from regenerating cartilage, helping to fix torn ligaments and damaged rotator cuffs, to repairing traumatic brain injuries.
This hope carries widespread implications into the sports world. Fewer surgeries. Faster recovery times. Football and basketball players who return to action after torn ACLs in three to four months. Teams that harvest and bank stem cells from their players to treat injuries as they occur throughout seasons. Cartilage repaired before ligaments are fully torn. Partial tears that can be fixed without surgery.
That’s only one prong, for current athletes. Then there are possible stem cell therapies for former players: treatments that ease knee, hip, shoulder and joint damage; accelerate muscle repair; or counter early-onset dementia, brain damage, or strokes.
Image Credit: Tim Ludvigsen