Did Stem Cells Play a Role in Pitcher's Comeback?

Paul Steinbach Headshot

Bartolo Colon goes for his third victory of the season tonight as the New York Yankees host archrival Boston. That would be three wins more than he notched all of last season. In fact, Colon didn't even pitch last season.

The right-hander's remarkable comeback from elbow and shoulder injuries that have plagued him since 2005 has been attributed, at least in part, to stem cell injections administered during a 45-minute procedure in April 2010. The New York Times reported this week that Colon's agent had informed the Yankees of the procedure, and that the Yankees in turn informed Major League Baseball. An MLB spokesperson told the Times that the league is "looking into it."

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says the team was unaware of Colon's treatment when it signed the pitcher to a $900,000 contract after his productive off-season pitching in the Dominican Republic, where the controversial procedure took place.

Joseph Purita, an orthopedic surgeon from Boca Raton, Fla., led a team of Dominican doctors in using stem sells harvested from Colon's own fat and bone marrow to repair ligament damage and a torn rotator cuff. Purita says no human growth hormone, which is banned by MLB, was used in the treatment of Colon. "This is not hocus-pocus," Purita told the Times. "This is the future of sports medicine, in particular. Here it is that I got a guy back playing baseball and throwing pitches at 95 miles an hour."

Others remain less convinced of the role stem cells played. Before the procedure can be proven effective, it must be subjected to scientific study, according to Freddie Fu, chairman of the department of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "In this case, we don't know how the body's natural healing abilities, along with the player's own training, influenced the outcome," Fu told the Times. "We know how stem cells work in cancer and AIDS patients. But in sports, we just don't know. There is a lot of hype."

Even Purita admitted this much: Without hard work by Colon, the comeback would not have been possible. "We gave him the means, but he has the focus and desire, the killer instinct," Purita said. "He worked his tail off to get back in the game. That is something stem cells cannot fix."

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