Stem cell therapy was already a controversial enough issue, says spine health expert Dr. Richard Obedian, before NFL quarterback Peyton Manning entered the discussion with his questionable stem cell treatment. Two years after receiving a controversial stem cell operation, Manning led the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl. This has many fans and medical experts alike asking the same question:
Are stem cells to thank for Manning’s successful recovery? And more importantly, does this mean that stem cell treatments are a viable recovery method for anybody with an injury?
How Stem Cells (Supposedly) Work
“First of all, the jury is still out on stem cells and their use in medicine,” reports Dr. Richard Obedian. “However, research is ongoing to determine if stem cells can regenerate damaged or injured tissue or if they can accelerate healing.”
This is an important point to note, he says. Until medical scientists can come to a better understanding and agreement of just how useful stem cells truly are at what they are purported to do, any stories of their medical benefits should be taken with a grain of salt.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, Manning’s stem cell treatment most likely utilized what are known as “induced pluripotent stem cells,” which can supposedly be reprogrammed to become any other cell type within the body. For Manning, these adult stem cells were taken from his own fat cells.
“The idea behind adult stem cells,” says Dr. Obedian, “is that they are able to grow into other cells for specific organs or tissues. 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.”
The Problem with Stem Cell Misinformation
With embryonic stem cells, says Dr. Richard Obedian, the controversy is easy enough to understand. Anytime any medical procedure seems to necessitate meddling with the natural development of a fetus, it is no wonder why some people would raise concerns.
However, adult stem cells, which have nothing to do with fetuses of any sort, are still not without controversy. According to the International Society for Stem Cell Research, much of this controversy is due to misunderstandings about stem cells, including what they purportedly can and cannot do and how this information is supported, if it is at all.
“Currently, there are very few widely accepted stem cell therapies,” reports the ISSCR. “The range of diseases where stem cell treatments have been shown to be beneficial in responsibly conducted clinical trials is still extremely restricted.”
Among these accepted effective therapies are blood stem cell transplantation for treating immune system conditions and stem cell dependent tissue grafting to treat some bone, skin, and corneal diseases. As Dr. Obedian points out, Peyton Manning’s neck operation, which involved regenerating the nerves with stem cells, would not be counted among these proven effective therapies.
An Alternate Theory on Stem Cell Effectiveness
Whatever medical professionals have to say about Manning’s stem cell operation, the fact remains that the neck injury for which he was receiving the treatment in the first place is doing better. His appearance at Super Bowl XLVIII was proof of his regained health. To some, it also stands as proof that his stem cell treatment was a success. But Dr. Richard Obedian has another theory.
“Peyton Manning is an elite superstar athlete – one in a billion,” explains Dr. Obedian. “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?”
Dr. Richard Obedian admits that it is entirely possible that the first possibility is the correct one and that Manning’s controversial stem cell operation really did lead to a swifter regenerative rate. “Stem cells have tremendous promise in medicine,” says Dr. Obedian. “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.”
The second scenario, he says, may be considered controversial as well, but is also more likely in his opinion. Rather than imparting any literal medical benefit, he believes that Manning’s stem cell operation may have simply acted as a very powerful placebo effect. “Stem cells may have merely made Peyton Manning more confident that he would return to his former self or better,” says Dr. Obedian. “Like the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ – Manning can be rebuilt and be even better than before.”
While Manning’s recovery may seem like too much of a stretch to attribute to a simple placebo, Dr. Obedian explains that the placebo effect can be more powerful than people may realize, especially where athletes are concerned. In a sport like professional football, for instance, an athlete’s mental attitude can prove every bit as critical as their physical condition.
“Perhaps the stem cells gave him a mental edge,” Dr. Obedian explains, “and that is where their true power lies. Of course, that does not mean that stem cells alone were the answer. He clearly required the surgery to allow him to heal.”
While Manning’s treatment remains controversial, Dr. Obedian believes that stem cell treatment may one day become the new standard of medical care. “First, though,” says Dr. Richard Obedian, “we still await randomized trials to see what their real impact is, if there is one.”