Retired professional golfer Jack Nicklaus is considered one of the best to ever play the game. His college and PGA careers are nothing short of legendary.
As a student at Ohio State University, he won the U.S. Amateur title in 1959 and 1961, as well as the NCAA Championship in ’61. Golf professionals realized they were about to compete with a prodigy when Nicklaus finished second at the 1960 U.S. Open with an amateur-record score of 282.
According to his website, he turned pro in November 1961 and never looked back. Nicknamed the “Golden Bear,” Nicklaus won six Masters Tournaments, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Open titles and three British Opens, for a record total of 18 major championships. Nicklaus also won six Australian Open titles and was named PGA Player of the Year five times,
Near the end of his playing career, he began a golf course design company called “Nicklaus Design” and has developed hundreds of courses in 35 countries.
Throughout his amazing playing career, Nicklaus was known as a fierce competitor and an innovator of new tactics on the course. He’s now applying those personal traits to the treatment of his chronically bad back by undergoing stem cell therapy.
Nicklaus Swings Back at Pain
According to GolfDigest.com, since 2016, Nicklaus has been undergoing experimental stem cell treatments in a German clinic. The report noted that “while he did not sense immediate relief, Nicklaus noticed the pain had subsided dramatically in the ensuing months, particularly after playing golf. His doctor, stem cell pioneer Eckhard Alt, said Nicklaus’ facet joint syndrome made him a perfect candidate for the procedure.”
Dr. Richard Guyer, a world-class spine surgeon and co-founder of Texas Back Institute (TBI) has treated many well-known professional athletes. He was asked for his medical opinion on the process Nicklaus is going through.
“He underwent this medical process in Germany because of the extensive research that has been carried by his physician researcher.” Dr. Guyer said. “Stem cells were harvested from his fat cells then injected into several areas of his back. From all reports, he seems to be responding well to this treatment.
“Stem cell treatment is controversial in this country because it is highly regulated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and they have not approved the manipulation of stem cells to date. There are some studies being done now. In fact, we (TBI) are a part of a study to compare placebo versus various concentrations of stem cells that have just completed enrollment. This is a treatment that has tremendous promise, but it is also an area that has been abused by some practitioners.”
Do Stem Cells Work for Every Disease and Injury?
The reports on Nicklaus’ condition noted that he had several, long-term injuries including damage to several of his facet joints. There are so many spinal injuries that can be caused by the repetitive force of a golf swing and this begs the question: Can stem cell treatment regenerate tissue for any and all spinal injuries?
“This reminds me of the history of antibiotics,” Dr. Guyer said. “When they were first discovered, I’m sure they were applied for inappropriate conditions. Unfortunately, these drugs didn’t work for all infections. This is analogous to where we are with stem cells now.
“Some practitioners are applying these very powerful cells in many areas of the body. We simply don’t know (yet) whether this is an effective treatment.
“It is hoped that once they (the stem cells) get to the injured area they will start to make new cells that will regenerate the tissue. In the case of Nicklaus, it is my understanding that the stem cells have been injected into his facet joints.
“The progress on gene therapy, using knowledge about our chromosomes, is another good example of what science can do. In the beginning, all we knew was that there were two chromosome strands that were twisted in a triple helix. Now, with genetic mapping of each chromosome, we are slowly learning what the genes are responsible for. We still don’t have all the answers, but we have come a long, long way.”
A Complicated and Painful Process
According to the news report, the procedure involved liposuction around Nicklaus’ abdomen area, extracting cells from three ounces of fat. This was strained with an enzyme, spun into a slurry mix, and then injected into 14 different spots throughout his back and neck. Why are all these steps needed?
“It is complicated and painful for the patient,” Dr. Guyer said. “The reason for this lengthy process is that we don’t know how many stem cells are needed to regenerate the tissue. In Germany, they have different techniques. In the U.S., we are not allowed to manipulate stem cells outside the body.
“The reality is that we don’t know how many stem cells are needed to regenerate damaged spinal tissue. The only way we will know is through the type of research we are doing at TBI.”
Age and Stem Cell Therapy
Jack Nicklaus is 78 years old and his bones and joints have had extensive wear and tear from a demanding golf career. What effect does age have on the efficacy of stem cell treatment?
“This question about the effect age on stem cell treatment is another unknown,” Dr. Guyer said. “When we determine the number of stem cells that we need to inject in order to stimulate tissue growth, we will be better able to determine this. The so-called ‘level one’ research the FDA requires, compares a placebo with the experimental stem cell treatment. This will help answer these questions of age and what stem cells will regenerate the tissue.
A Fundamental Change in Medicine
Dr. Guyer has played an integral role in the success of Texas Back Institute for the past 40 years. He has seen innovations such as artificial discs for motion preservation and fundamental changes in scoliosis treatment and is excited about the potential impact of regenerative medicine.
“This approach allows us to treat the primary disease much earlier in the treatment process,” he said. “If, for example, we see a teenager who is complaining of back pain and an MRI reveals an early degenerative disc, in the future, we hope to be able to inject the appropriate amount of stem cells in exactly the right area to encourage the regrowth of normal disc tissue.
“This will fundamentally change the practice of medicine. It will allow us to pivot from treating ‘end-stage’ diseases (which is what we do now) to earlier, less invasive and more effective treatment that encourages the body to regenerate the damaged tissue. That will be remarkable!”
If you are experiencing back pain that has persisted for more than two weeks, contact Texas Back Institute to set an appointment with one of our world-class spine experts.