Thursday 17 October 2019

Groundbreaking stem cell therapy gets Jack back in the swing of things

Jack Nicklaus is back on the golf course and playing pain-free after the new treatment. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Jack Nicklaus is back on the golf course and playing pain-free after the new treatment. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Sarah Knapton

Champion golfer Jack Nicklaus has become one of the first people in the world to undergo groundbreaking stem cell therapy on his back to allow him to swing a golf club once more.

The 78-year-old, known as the Golden Bear, won 18 Majors in his career, but has suffered severe back pain from childhood and needed regular cortisone injections as a player.

The pain was so severe it caused him to withdraw from two tournaments, and it reached the stage where, before the treatment, he could not stand for longer than 10 minutes at a time.

In an experimental procedure carried out in Germany by Dr Eckhard Alt, Nicklaus had stem cells removed from his abdomen and inserted into his lower back. The procedure took just 90 minutes, and within a week he was back on the golf course, pain-free.

Nicklaus's son Gary underwent the same operation which allowed him to play golf again after two years away. In his case, the stem cells were migrated to his hip.

The experts behind the treatment, which costs just $50 (€41), are confident the procedure will be widely available within the next five years and could change the lives of millions of patients suffering from joint pain.

Speaking about the procedure at Unite To Cure: the Fourth Vatican Conference in Vatican City, Jack Nicklaus said: "I could not hit a golf ball without hurting. And I couldn't stand up for more than about 10 minutes.

"I can now stand for as long as I want, I don't hurt when I hit a golf ball and I don't hurt when I hit a tennis ball. I went in and had the fat taken, an hour later I went back in. I played golf the next week and I thought this is pretty good. I wish I had met Eckhard about 20 years earlier."

Nicklaus had the first procedure in 2016 and this week is travelling back to Munich to have stem cells injected into his shoulder.

The treatment was developed by Sanford Health, the US not-for-profit healthcare company. It works by taking 100ml to 200ml of fat tissue from the patient's abdomen, and spinning it in a centrifuge with an enzyme mixture made from a substance produced by E.coli, which separates the stem cells. Stem cells can become any cell in the body and not only replace damaged tissue, but recruit repair mechanisms so the body works to heal itself. The new treatment is far quicker and cheaper than traditional surgery.

The therapy was the first of its kind to be given Food and Drug Administration approval and phase one safety trials are ongoing.

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