A look at Chris Paul, therapeutic medicine in the NBA and sports in general, and predicting if, and when, it will become a performance enhancer.
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Nov 23, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; LA Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) yells at the Dallas Mavericks bench during the second half at the American Airlines Center. The Clippers defeat the Mavericks 124-104. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
During the offseason, LA Clippers point guard Chris Paul had Lasik eye surgery done. I’m probably not the first person to tell you this. The commentators have talked about it during every Clipper game since the news broke. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton even had an article asking if CP3’s great start to the season, especially his 43.9 percent three-point shot, could be equated to the surgery. All the attention this is getting is because Paul is playing at an MVP level, and the Clippers are off to a historic 14-2 start.
Paul had the surgery done by Dr. Kerry Assil after years of prodding from his family. Paul’s vision had been an issue for most of his life. And when I think of Paul’s face, I almost always think of him squinting. Apparently, Chris’ brother used a similar argument to finally convince him to get Lasik.
Lasik in Sports
CP3 is not the first NBA player to have the procedure done. Close friends Dwyane Wade and LeBron James have had the surgery, as well as a handful of other NBA players. In Pelton’s article, he looked at players who have had Lasik, and compared their shooting percentages from before and after. The article is a great read, and his general conclusion is the difference is negligible.
Athletes in other sports have had Lasik done as well. Most notably, Tiger Woods. Woods had the procedure done twice, the first coming in 1999. After the first surgery, Woods went on to win five straight PGA events. But the effect that Lasik had on this is questionable. This was Tiger Woods in his prime, after all. And at the end of the day, getting Lasik has never propelled an average Joe to sports stardom. Woods, CP3, LeBron were all undeniably great before Lasik.
But what happens when a procedure does push an athlete past his peers? What happens when therapeutic medicine becomes a performance enhancer?
This day might be a lot closer than you think. We’ll begin with chapter one, looking at a new form of treatment to drastically reduce the recovery time of ACL repair.
October 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Clippers guard Jamal Crawford (11) moves the ball down court against the Portland Trail Blazers during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
A BEAR of a Problem
One of the most common procedures for an orthopaedic surgeon is ACL repair. A torn ACL is a devastating injury that can sideline an athlete for six to eights months. Former Clipper Baron Davis has suffered from it, as well as current Clipper Jamal Crawford. To repair a torn ACL, surgeons will replace the entire ligament with either a cadaver donor ACL, a pig ACL, or, most commonly, a graft. A graft is a section of ligament removed from the patient, usually from the hamstring. A graft requires extra rehab time as the hamstring must heal as well.
But there is a new trial procedure called BEAR (bridge enhanced ACL repair), that could reduce recovery time from 6-8 months, to 6-8 weeks. The BEAR procedure uses a special sponge that is stitched between the two severed ends of the tendon. This acts as a bridge, and allows the body to regrow its own ACL inside the knee.
The BEAR trials are currently in Phase 2, and are testing the long-term effects on the first human patients. The early returns are extremely promising. One of the key factors they are looking at is the strength of the newly grown tendon.
Will the new ACL be somehow compromised? Or, could the new ACL be stronger than the one it replaced? Could a brand new ACL, without years of wear on it, provide an athlete with enhanced physical abilities? If this were to be the case, it would be an un-planned for side effect of the procedure.
But there are other breakthroughs in medical science that could promise just that.
There is a new technology that we will all be hearing a lot about in the next couple of years. It’s called CRISPR-Cas 9, or just CRISPR. It’s a gene editing technology that allows one to delete or insert new DNA sequences into cells.
This technology will eventually allow for designer babies, the first step towards “Gattaca” (excuse the very cheesy, ’90s trailer above). These designer babies could be superhuman compared to our current elite athletes. But this is obviously still a long ways off, and a moral minefield as well. Something that may be outlawed before it even becomes a reality. One of the technologies inventors , Jennifer Doudna, has even called for a cease to experimenting, until the moral ramifications of this can be fully understood.
But I’m more interested in a simpler, more novel use of the technology. I’m interested in using CRISPR in combination with other medical advances to create the ultimate in therapeutic medicine.
Imagine, if you will, an aging NBA star. Approaching their 40th birthday, the player has achieved much in his career. But they have failed to accomplish their ultimate goal, winning an NBA title. They know they have just one season left in their battle worn body. But even that proves to be too much, and the player succumbs to a devastating leg injury early in the season.
Refusing to accept that this is the end, they approach a brilliant orthopedic surgeon, someone who pushes the boundaries of their field. The surgeon promises the player Super Biologics, that will greatly enhance their abilities.
The surgeon tells the athlete, “I can replace every tendon and ligament in your damaged leg with new ones. I’ll grow this new tissue in a lab, on scaffolding provided by pigs, using your own cells. It will be your own, healthy tissue. I can then super charge it, using CRISPR. I will add sections of red-kangaroo DNA, an animal with a vertical leap of 7-9.8 feet, to the growing cells. Regenerative salamander DNA will also be added to accelerate the healing process, and allow your body to handle it’s new, super human joints.”
This may sound like science fiction (and a good one at that), but it’s more plausible than you may think. All of these technologies currently exist. And while some are still in their infant stages, they are only a few generations away from technically being able do just what we discussed. And these are machine generations we are talking about, not human. Just think of how quickly the iPhone moves through generations.
Therapeutic medicine becoming a performance enhancer is something that we will most likely see in our lifetime. And while Lasik shouldn’t be considered a performance enhancer given it’s basic purpose to help people have standard eye sight, it’s the first therapeutic procedure to scratch that surface.
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It’s a bold new world we live in, and science is progressing faster and faster. Things are changing everywhere, and it’s only a matter of time before medical science and sports come to a fascinating face off.