"Soon the science will not only be able to slow down the aging of the cells, soon the science will fix the cells to the state, and so we become eternal."
This address by the ever-eccentric former French footballer Eric Cantona raised some eyebrows. Given it was uttered while he was receiving UEFA's president award, at the time the words did not make much sense. There was no context.
But perhaps there is now.
What do Tiger Woods, Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rey Mysterio and Sergio Aguero have in common? Apart from being elite athletes, all have reportedly undergone stem cell therapy to prolong their careers.
The latest in this illustrious list is 33-year-old Sergio "Kun" Aguero, who recently made the move from Champions of England Manchester City to European elites FC Barcelona. With this last chance of playing for a club boasting his best friend Lionel Messi, Aguero is reportedly taking the measure to prolong his career after an injury-plagued last season.
Back in 2016, when Cristiano was still in the whites of Real Madrid, he tore a hamstring just before a key match against Manchester City.
Hamstring injuries are notorious for keeping athletes out for a long time, but Cristiano was back less than three weeks later.
The same year, he tore a collateral ligament in his knee. Once again he returned to the field a month later, with many crediting stem cell therapy for his quick recovery.
Rafael Nadal, is another example of an athlete who swears by the therapy. He first received the treatment in 2014 for a back injury. For his treatment, stem cells were cultivated and injected into a joint in Nadal's spine to regenerate his cartilage.
Forty-six year old American professional wrestler Rey Mysterio, known for his breakneck speed and breathtaking display of acrobatics had also been written off as past his prime a few years ago. A quick trip to Colombia's Medellin, at the BioXcellerator Colombia, a pioneer institution in the application of cellular therapies, and Rey Mysterio was back to his best.
So what is stem cell therapy?
One of the earliest and most cited studies available on stem cell was published in medical journal the Lancet in 2005. At the time, the study looked at how stem cells might be used in future medical treatments for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or diabetes, among a list of other incurable diseases.
One of the first ideas was to "clone" people who needed the treatment, using an embryo which would be destroyed once the matching stem cells are harvested from it.
But cloning has always been a hot button topic and this approach was deemed impractical. In 2001, the then US president George Bush imposed restrictions on federal funding for embryo research on moral grounds.
Another method the Lancet report explored was to tissue-match stem cells to potential patients, akin to organ transplants.
The study went on to find that 100 donors with blood group O could "provide a full match for 13% of the patients and a favourable match for up to 50%."
Super donors -- people whose stem cells, the body's master cells that can potentially be turned into any type of tissue, could match the widest range of people – had unusually compatible tissues and could provide complete matches for 40% of recipients.
But if the body rejected the graft, or stem cells, then the treatment would not work.
Where we are now
In 2012, after a decade of wait, the first results of a trial involving human embryonic stem cells was published in a medical journal.
In another report by the Lancet, the study was dissected to demonstrate how two women with eye disease were injected with stem cells. Soon, both had shown an improvement in their vision.
This was a watershed moment for advance medical treatment – any tissue in the body could now be potentially improved.
Over the years, stem cells have been researched for different purposes, especially in terms of their regenerative qualities.
A study published by in the National Library of Medicine by two independent authors focused on the use of stem cells to treat osteoarthritis.
"Over the last years, there has been an increased interest around regenerative medicine, especially regarding stem cell treatments and related applications. We hypothesize that stem cell therapies can represent a feasible option for idiopathic knee OA, delaying or even avoiding the joint replacement," the study said.
For the research, authors pored through different databases, using 18 studies, comprising 1,069 treated knees.
At the end of the research, the authors concluded that "…overall remarkable improvement of all clinical and functional considered outcomes, regardless of the cell source. Patients treated at earlier-degeneration stages reported statistically significant greater outcomes. The pain and function scores were improved considerably, thus, leading to a significant improvement of patient participation in recreational activities and quality of life."
This, at least for those who have faith in the future of regenerative medicine, was a eureka moment. There was again some evidence, even if scant, that stem cell therapy would become the way forward in the years to come.
Currently, stem cell therapy still costs a pretty penny, going for anywhere between $4,000-$20,000 and above.
In 2019, the Bangladesh Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Society organised held an international conference on latest innovations in treatment mechanisms at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University.
This marked the mainstream arrival of stem cell therapy in Bangladesh.
Although there is still some ways, given the career trajectory of many of the athletes who may have benefited from the treatment, perhaps it is one that Bangladesh can begin to explore more fervently.
For now, the jury is still out, but now it may be a question of when and not if.