For years, NFL players traveled to other countries looking for treatment to a debilitating condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It’s a condition that can cause long-term brain damage, and has been found to be linked to full-contact sports.
Now, a new procedure is being studied in the U.S., and it offers hope to athletes or anyone who has suffered a brain injury or severe concussion.
When the film “Concussion” came out in theaters, exposing the story behind the tragic death of Hall of Fame NFL player “Iron Mike” Webster, the public took a harder look at the link between punishing hits in sports and CTE.
Dr. Mark Fogietti and Michael Kellis were too busy with clinical trials on an experimental stem procedure to see the film, but when they did, “a light bulb went off in regards to trying to treat CTE.”
It was a possible game-changing cure that OSU All-American and NFL champion Matt Wilhelm is about to try.
“Using things that come out of my body to regenerate some of those things and help me feel better, it was an absolutely no-brainer,” Wilhelm said.
At the Ohio Stem Cell Treatment Center in Cleveland, part of the National Cell Surgical Network, doctors are using a person’s own fat to heal their body.
The results, doctors say, have been dramatic.
That’s because they say fat is loaded with mesenchymal stem cells and other kinds of highly-regenerative cells called stromal vascular fraction (SVF).
“It’s important to note that these stem cells are what we call pluripotent. They become where we put them.”
Think of it like a utility player on the field. The SVF recognizes the problem and then rushes to help out, tackling everything from auto-immune disorders to orthopedic and neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis (MS).
Cleveland broadcaster Kym Sellers has advanced MS, and was the first person in the state to undergo the outpatient procedure.
“The more I exercise, I’m telling you, the better I feel,” Sellers said.
Nearly three years later, doctors say they’ve stopped the progression of the disease, and are now working to reverse it.
“I just have a athlete’s mentality, you know. No pain, no gain,” Sellers said with a smile.
They say about 90 percent of patients so far have seen improvements, including Super Bowl champion Joe Jurevicius, who had his knees treated.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Jurevicius said. Wilhelm spoke to Jurevicius when he was considering the treatments.
“I spoke with Joe personally about it and I said, ‘shoot me straight. Am I going from a 4 to a 6, or –‘ and he interrupted me and he said, ‘no, you’re going to go from a 4 to a 9,'” Wilhelm recalled.
It gave Wilhelm and his wife Vanessa tremendous hope.
“To just feel better, and function better on a daily basis,” Wilhelm said, especially after so many concussions.
Wilhelm is first being treated to prevent CTE.
“What we’re trying to do is just improve and repair the central nervous system so that he never gets it,” Dr. Foglietti said.
Foglietti said research on lab rats has been successful, but the clock is ticking. Studies at Boston University found CTE in 87 of 91 brains of former NFL players — men who suffered memory loss, paranoia, depression, and dementia, symptoms other NFL greats are now openly discussing, from Tony Dorsett to Bart Starr.
Terry Bradshaw, friend and teammate of Mike Webster, has also discussed his struggles. Webster, whose death came just 5 years after being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is now part of a tragically growing list of athletes who have died after suffering CTE.
These deaths have led to lawsuits, safety changes within the league, and a new enduring legacy for Iron Mike.
“Continue to try,” Webster said at his Hall of Fame inauguration. “Do not be afraid to fail. All we have to do is finish the game, and we’ll all be winners. And if we’re going to finish the game, and all be winners, why not enjoy it a little bit more by caring about one another?”
Doctors are also working to see if this treatment can be used to help drug addicts who suffered brain damage from an overdose.