Follow the sports pages next spring and just count the number of baseball players, particularly pitchers, who elect to undergo stem cell or PRP therapy instead of scheduling Tommy John surgery. The numbers will surprise you. In fact, just Google ‘PRP therapy’ or stem ‘cell therapy’ for athletes and you will find story after story.
Large numbers of athletes turning to regenerative medicine is normal, but it’s also illustrative of a significant problem: despite the effectiveness of the current PRP and stem cell therapies now on the market, something is slowing down the entry of new treatments.
Nothing New Here
It’s not as though PRP and stem cell therapies are new. They are not. Advanced Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI), a Utah company that trains doctors in regenerative medicine, explains that the first successful stem cell treatment was developed more than three decades ago for leukemia and lymphoma. PRP therapy has been used for decades to help wounds heal following surgery. And in more recent years, untold numbers of patients have benefited from both kinds of therapies to promote healing following sports injuries. So why do we seem to be stuck here?
Medical News Today published an excellent piece in early October from Dr. Yella Hewings-Martin, a biochemist and pediatrician who received her training in London. Whether intentionally or not, Hewings-Martin revealed three things are slowing down the introduction of new, marketable stem cell therapies in the U.S.:
1. An Archaic Government System
All across the United States, and the entire world for that matter, researchers are fully entrenched in all sorts of studies aimed at finding ways to use stem cells to make us healthier. Medical News Today and many other publications publish story after story detailing the breakthroughs researchers are coming up with. Unfortunately, getting any of those breakthroughs to market requires going through a lengthy and archaic FDA system to get approval. A simple therapy that could easily impact millions of lives could take upwards of a decade to push through the FDA. It can also cost tens of millions of dollars. That leads to the second point: cost.
2. Patient Costs and Insurance
Even the most basic stem cell treatments for osteoarthritis and musculoskeletal injuries are expensive. And because insurance companies do not cover them except in very rare instances, patients are left to pay for treatments out of pocket. This limits demand. The patient who cannot afford thousands of dollars for treatment would just as soon undergo knee surgery knowing that his/her insurance company will pay for it. Equally unfortunate is the reality that low demand keeps the price high for the simple fact that the cost of actually producing the treatments has to be covered.
3. The Dishonest Scammers
Last but not least are the dishonest scammers who use autologous stem cell therapies to allegedly treat conditions for which there is no proof of efficacy. They rob patients of their money without achieving the promised results. This leaves a big black eye on the entire regenerative medicine community. With that black eye comes more FDA scrutiny and plenty of consumer skepticism. Until the scammers are purged from the rolls of doctors offering legitimate and proven regenerative medicine treatments, the black eye will persist.
Dr. Hewings-Martin makes a very compelling case in favor of finding ways to promote regenerative medicine and get more treatments to the market. Regenerative medicine holds a lot of hope and promise. It would be a shame to allow the FDA, production costs, and a small minority of unscrupulous doctors to keep it from reaching its full potential.