K.J. Wright was so effusive in how well a procedure called Regenokine worked for him that five Seahawks teammates are also trying it. But doctors offered a mixture skepticism and a large degree of hope regarding the process.
At first, Pete Carroll referred to the mysterious treatment linebacker K.J. Wright received two weeks ago as “the process.” Then, when five more Seahawks players left this week for parts unknown to undergo the same procedure, Carroll joked that they had “entered the circle.”
What they had entered, in reality, is a new frontier in sports medicine, one that could either revolutionize the treatment of injuries or one day be regarded as a passing fad.
It’s called Regenokine, just one tentacle of a growing field called biologic medicine. It contains vast promise but is also surrounded by many questions, the most pressing of which is: Does it really work?
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The theory behind Regenokine, and other related processes such as Orthokine and Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP), is an intriguing one: That the healing powers of one’s own blood tissue can be a safer, less invasive and more effective means of treating injuries than surgery.
“I believe we should be moving toward regenerative medicine,’’ said Dr. Adam Pourcho, head team physician of the Seattle Storm and a sports medicine doctor with the Swedish Medical Group. “If you harness the body’s natural healing cells and inject them back into you, the concept makes sense. There’s still some fine-tuning to be done.”
Certainly, many of the athletes who have used it, from Kobe Bryant to Fred Couples, swear by it. Wright was so effusive in how well it worked for him — “a one-thousand percent” improvement, he said after Friday’s game with Kansas City — that teammates Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Luke Joeckel, Tyler Lockett and Michael Wilhoite all decided to partake in a version of Regenokine.
In one regard, it’s just another example of the Seahawks trying to get every edge they can — “what we call a relentless pursuit of a competitive edge,’’ defensive coordinator Kris Richard said Tuesday. “There it is, man. It’s part of the program. Guys are trying to find the cutting edge in technology and essentially whatever it is going to take under the letter of the law in order to keep yourself as fresh as possible so you can play and be productive as possible.
“It’s legit. It helps guys. It makes them feel better. So, yeah, go ahead and get that and let’s ball.’’
There had been much speculation that Wright had gone off to Germany, where the treatment was developed by Dr. Peter Wehling, a spinal surgeon in Dusseldorf. But it appears that all of the Seahawks stayed in the country.
The process of Regenokine involves extracting from the patient a small cup of blood, which is heated up into what has been described as “a fever” and spun in a centrifuge to separate the blood into its constituent parts. The yellowish serum in the middle contains agents that act to fight inflammation, and proteins to block pain, and it is injected back into the patient.
I tried to find out as much as I could about Regenokine and related processes, and in doing so talked to numerous physicians and injury experts, some of whom didn’t want to be quoted. One doctor was adamantly opposed to Regenokine, calling it “the worst thing an athlete can do.” He said it kills the pain but doesn’t fix the underlying pathology, and felt that PRP is a much preferred option.
Mostly, though, I found a mixture of skepticism and a large degree of hope regarding Regenokine. As Jonah Lehrer wrote in Grantland in 2012, “This is a treatment we want to believe in. For the first time, professional athletes have been given access to a legal therapy that promises to reverse their inevitable decline, restoring those joints that have been worn away by a lifetime of competition.”
A noble pursuit, indeed, but is that what really happens? Will Carroll, author of “The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball’s Drug Problems,” and an expert on athletic injuries, said the clinical studies of Regenokine are mixed.
“It’s kind of like PRP,’’ he said. “No one is sure it does anything good, but we’re pretty sure it doesn’t do anything bad. Anecdotal evidence is that the results are doing pretty well. Is it a cure-all? Obviously not. It’s more or less a time saver.”
It’s also hugely expensive, up to $10,000 for a treatment (PRP, by comparison, is usually under $1,000) and usually not covered by insurance. That alone makes Regenokine out of reach for most normal citizens, and might add to the allure for athletes and celebrities. Pourcho, however, believes that as the benefits of regenerative medicine become more codified, insurance companies will begin to cover it, broadening the scope of Regenokine treatments.
Dr. Brett Daniel, a family physician and medical director of the Best Practice Team at Swedish, said he tells patients that Regenokine is an option to help treat arthritis, one that benefits some people but not all.
“It seems safe, but until we see enough of it used long term, we do not always know the risks and unintended consequences,’’ he said. “Athletes are on a short timeline with big money on the line, so they will push the envelope hoping it helps, no matter the cost or small chance of unknown risks. For common folks, the cost is usually prohibitive, and we use more conventional means.”
The Seahawks, of course, have always been drawn to the unconventional. This preseason, it has taken them straight into “the circle.”