Baseball player injected with stem cells returns to the mound

June 2, 2011


Even though the world failed to end as predicted on May 21st, it appears now the stars are in a positive alignment. In the last 48 hours, the NHL has returned to Winnipeg, the Vancouver Canucks beat the Boston Bruins 1-0 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals by scoring with 19 seconds left in the game, and my 8 year old son’s soccer/football team (the Black Knights) whom I coach won 5-2. Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket.

Meanwhile, in other sports news …

The New York Times recently reported (read article here) that Major League Baseball (MLB) is conducting an inquiry into a medical procedure performed on Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon. The procedure involved stem cells being injected into his damaged shoulder and elbow.

MLB’s executive vice-president for labour relations, Rob Manfred, said players are required to disclose their health history on a standard form and that failure to do so could be viewed as a breach of a player’s contract.

The American surgeon who performed the procedure, Dr. Joseph R. Purita, is a proponent of using human growth hormone in such treatments, but he has insisted that HGH was not used in Colon’s case. HGH is banned in baseball and by WADA.

Kris and I have written extensively about the interface of technology with sport which has been pejoratively described as technological doping. We’ve tried to wrap our heads around what performance enhancement means and distinguishing between different kinds of technology-inspired performance.

To this end, we’ve definitionally proposed that performance correction returns an athlete’s performance to its pre-existing condition, performance optimization enables an athlete to make the best use of their ability, and performance enhancement allows an athlete to do what would not otherwise be conceivably possible and thereby exceed genetic potential.

Lasik surgery which returns an athlete’s visual acuity to a normal range is an example of performance correction. Examples of performance optimization include exotic energy drinks and protein shakes, massage therapy, and training with a heart rate monitor. Genetic manipulation, blood doping and EPO are examples of performance enhancement which are regarded as illegal.

Dr. Purita insists that no HGH was administered (“There is no smoking gun here” he is quoted as saying) and hence Colon would not be in violation of the MLB’s anti-doping policy. It appears equally improbable that Colon would receive anything more than a slap on the wrist for breach of contract by not disclosing the procedure on his health history form.

But the question left unanswered is whether this stem cell surgery is tantamount to other medical procedures such as EPO and blood doping. MLB President Bob DuPuy has properly characterized (read article here) those performance enhancement techniques as improper if they undermine the integrity of the sport, affects the fairness of competition, and tilts the playing field.

Is a technique which ‘turns back the hands of time’  – and makes a 37 year old pitcher who once won the American League Cy Young Award for best pitcher but whose best years were clearly behind him – and returns him to the mound with a 95 mile per hour fastball legal? Is this an instance of science enabling Colon to do what would not otherwise be possible or is it an example of modern medicine prolonging the career of an athlete through technologically-inspired means?

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