Thursday, December 29, 2011
German doctor discusses treatments
By Shaun Assael
ESPN The Magazine
The doctor that New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez traveled to Germany to see for his aching knee and shoulder is a former physician for Pope John Paul II who claims to be a miracle worker when it comes to reversing arthritis.
A long list of Hollywood stars and pro athletes have travelled to Dusseldorf to seek treatment from Peter Wehling, a brash molecular scientist with a taste for celebrity. His website shows him arm and arm with patient Nick Nolte. Golfer Fred Couples wrote an introduction to Wehling's recent book, The End of Pain. But it took the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who sought help for his ailing right knee this summer, to get A-Rod interested in Wehling's pioneering treatments.
As Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told reporters this week, "Kobe had maintained, according to Alex, that he felt significantly better because of it."
When asked about it Thursday, Bryant confirmed he'd given Wehling's number to Rodriguez.
"... I just told him it made a huge difference for me," he said.
Wehling's treatment involves isolating growth factors and other healing agents in his patient's blood that stop a particularly destructive arthritic agent known as interleukin-1, which causes degeneration of the joints. After he incubates and supercharges the proteins, Wehling gets a serum that he says is up to 1,000-times higher in the arthritis fighting growth factors than normal blood.
In an interview with ESPN The Magazine, Wehling claimed to have a 90 percent success rate by genetically screening his patients to personalize their serums.
"I am the only one to have found a way to cure arthritis," he said.
According to the New York Post, the Yankees sought guidance from Major League Baseball before allowing A-Rod to travel to Dusseldorf on Dec. 5 for treatment on his right knee, which had surgery for a slightly torn meniscus this summer. In a conference call with reporters, Cashman said the league permitted the procedure.
But MLB's medical director, Gary Green, told ESPN New York that the league did not give the Yankees any green light.
"We don't have a mechanism for a medical approval process," he said. "We just tell the teams to make sure their players follow state and local laws."
Wehling recently opened an outpost of his clinic in Los Angeles with veteran anti-aging specialist, Chris Renna, and another in New York with neurologist Douglas Schottenstein, who told the New York Post that he's done more than 50 procedures.
But one reason that A-Rod may have travelled to Dusseldorf is because it unclear whether the treatment meets the standards of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. The agency has issued several sternly worded advisories in recent months, warning orthopedists to avoid incubating blood more than a few hours to boost its healing properties. Wehling's procedure involves incubating the blood for a day.
"I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that the FDA doesn't allow us to do this in our country," said Jim Bradley, the Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor and an orthopedist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The FDA only allows treatments involving "minimal manipulation," which federal statue defines as "processing that does not alter the relevant biological characteristics of cells or tissues."
In an interview, Renna defended the work, saying, "We're not altering the characteristics of anything."
In the separate interview, Wehling told The Magazine, "We do it at the moment only on low profile and recommendation, and we do not advertise it."
Wehling began his research as an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last decade, doing studies on lab rats.
An early partner in his work, Chris Evans, an orthopedics professor at Harvard Medical School, says, "He's a friend of mine, but he's also the only one to have done clinical trials."
Those trials, Evans says, prove that Wehling's work stops one of the most damaging byproducts of diseased joints -- interleukin -- from attaching to receptor sites and causing a cascade of damage.
The Yankees thoroughly researched that work, and Cashman told reporters this week that "there appeared to be no downside" to having Rodriguez try it.
But MLB's Green isn't willing to endorse it yet.
"It's still such an evolving field, it's hard to get a handle on some of these products," he says.
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.