Last year's stem-cell treatment that preceded Bartolo Colon's pitching resurgence with the Yankees was nothing more sinister than "taking an inactive army and putting it where it's needed," according to the orthopedic surgeon who employed the pioneering procedure.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Joseph Purita, a member of a regenerative medicine clinic in Boca Raton, Fla., described how stem cells were extracted from the fat in Colon's abdomen and bone marrow in his pelvis, run through a machine to concentrate the solution, then injected into Colon's injured shoulder and elbow to promote healing.
"This is no different than doing Tommy John surgery," Purita said. "Taking somebody's own tissue to rehabilitate an injury. All you're doing is transferring cells from one part of the body to another.''
Still, in a world of fuzzy boundaries between modern science and performance enhancement, Major League Baseball and the Yankees want more details about Purita's process, especially because Purita acknowledged using small amounts of human growth hormone in similar treatments involving non-athletes.
Purita insisted he never has used HGH, banned by baseball and other sports organizations, in treating any competitive athlete. Beyond that, there is a question about whether Colon, 37, had informed the Yankees of Purita's procedure. Players are required to fill out a form in spring training disclosing any treatments they have received.
Colon, who speaks through a translator, was not made available by the Yankees. General manager Brian Cashman told reporters he had no further information on Colon's treatment, which first was reported by The New York Times.
Dr. Gary Wadler, past chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency's prohibited drugs committee and professor of medicine at Hofstra-North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine, said Colon's treatment could raise red flags even if no banned substance was used in the process.
WADA rules, which govern international sports, target "gene doping'' as performance-enhancing and include in that prohibited category any "use of normal or genetically modified cells'' because, Wadler said, "stem cells theoretically can grow muscle or any tissue.''
But a baseball official said it is not clear whether such specific language exists in the sport's anti-doping bylaws. More to the point was Purita's past admission of HGH use in patients.
Purita's denial of such use with Colon was echoed by Dr. Leonel Liriano, another on the team of doctors involved in the April 2010 Colon treatment in the Dominican Republic, in a quote to The Associated Press in Santo Domingo Thursday.
"I've never heard of genetic doping,'' said Purita, who compared the stem-cell technique to the blood-spinning procedure known as platelet-rich plasma therapy that is accepted by anti-doping officials. Before treating Colon, Purita said, "I spoke to the Harvest Technologies people, the company I work with, to give me the rules. They said the IOC said this is OK to do.
"As we get older the body can't keep up with repair," Purita said. "When you hear of something like a rotator cuff injury, typically there is not enough blood supply for it to repair itself. Stem cells signal to the body to send more blood cells."