This is a story in which elite-level sports meet the cutting edge of science, for better or worse.
It’s neither an endorsement of anyone or anything, nor a cautionary tale. It’s simply a sign of the no-man’s land we’re in right now in the young science of biologics, and one NFL player’s decision to try an intriguing but unproven treatment to help extend his career.
The player is Jimmy Graham, the five-time Pro Bowl tight end the Green Bay Packers signed in free agency this offseason. The science is in the promising but controversial field of stem cells, though the treatment Graham tried more specifically used an offshoot of stem cells, that is, extracellular vesicles (or EVs). More on that later.
The story starts with the torn patellar tendon Graham sustained in his right knee in November 2015, less than a week after he’d turned 29 and while with the Seattle Seahawks. A ruptured patellar tendon can be career-threatening and requires surgery and a long rehabilitation. Graham recovered well enough to return to the field nine months later, but says he played the 2016 season with significant, chronic pain in his knee.
First, he tried having his own stem cells harvested from his bone marrow and injected into his knee, but to minimal benefit. Then he heard about a treatment in Europe that deploys stem-cell secretions (that is, EVs) instead of the stem cells themselves. EVs were discovered about 30 years ago and have been studied more intensely over the past 15 years because of their therapeutic potential. Proponents say they appear to contribute to important biological processes, including tissue regeneration and neuroprotection.