New science may rewrite record books of our sports

May 26, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Barry Bonds is on the verge of passing Babe Ruth in career home runs, and he will then take aim at one of sport's most hallowed records. Lying in the crossfire is all that is sacred. From the press box to the bleachers, the amateur ethicists are all screaming about historical injustice, yet no one is taking any actual action.

Something must be done, and it's pretty clear what: Time for Hank Aaron to make a comeback.

The idea sounds silly, right? Like a bad Disney movie? But you've got to remember that the face of sports is constantly under the knife of a plastic surgeon. If the past 25 years evolved through fitness and technology, you can bet that science will have the biggest effect over the next quarter century.

Right now, scientists are working on advancements that would allow your favorite athletes to play well past their prime. Golden years need not be olden years. The ancient pursuit of the fabled Fountain of Youth has taken explorers from Asia to the Caribbean to Florida, but researches think they've found the secret in a petri dish.

"There are so many technologies that make it seem that very soon in the not-so-distant future, we should be able to rejuvenate people," says Matthew Sarad, CEO of Telomolecular Corp. "This will mean a lot of things, but it certainly could have implications in the sports world."

Telomolecular is one of two American companies that are trying to commercialize this cutting-edge science, which they say has the potential to not only stop the aging process - but reverse it. Theoretically, this would biologically allow 20th century legends such as Michael Jordan, Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky to make 21st century comebacks.

We're not talking about a new BALCO supplement or drinking a few more cups of Gatorade a day. Scientists are exploring ways to treat the human body through gene therapy. They've already determined that much of the aging process has been linked to the tiny tips of chromosomes.

These telomeres preserve the genes in chromosomes. When we're young, telomeres have no problem maintaining the recipe for life. But as we age, the blueprint gets fuzzy and the new cells all look like a black-and-white photo of Wilfred Brimley.

A good analogy is to imagine a car factory with an assembly line of machinery. Every time a new part rolls off the line, the machinery that made that part becomes less and less effective. So in time, the wheels, clutches and brakes are no longer as strong as earlier versions.

The telomeres are the machinery in our bodies responsible for churning out the new parts. Scientists have found that by repairing aging telomeres, new chromosomes, cells and eventually muscles and organs can retain the strength and potency of youth. A 75-year-old cell - or muscle or person - can essentially continue performing like that of a 25-year-old.

At universities across the country, researchers are tinkering in petri dishes. They've seen tissues live thousands of times beyond their life expectancy.

"It seems like we have all the pieces of the puzzle," Sarad says. "It's hard to say how long it will take for this technology to be commercialized. But the biggest piece, we've figured it out. The cause of 97 percent of human aging, we can reverse right now in a petri dish."

Now before you start signing up your spouse for immediate treatments or circulating a petition to re-sign Cal Ripken, it's worth noting that we're still talking about the horizon.

Most of this science is aimed at curing diseases, not hitting homers. But as has always been the case, science translates into many different arenas. So scientists currently trying to use gene therapy to battle muscular dystrophy will surely see their work cribbed by athletes looking for a boost.

(Tests in rodents have already found muscle growth of 20 to 50 percent and their strength has doubled. Here's why sports officials all over the globe are already scrambling: You can't test for gene therapy. It's only detectable through muscle biopsies.)

These advancements will be reason enough for a second set of record books. The Babe or Barry won't be comparable to the power and production around the corner. Albert Pujols, LeBron James and Shaun Alexander will seem mortal.

Sarad's group is focusing on aging components, not muscle growth. His group hopes to begin testing in animals in the next eight months. The process is no easy task. Scientists have to get into every nucleus of every cell, which is kind of like trying to break into the Pentagon armed with only a plastic spoon.

Still, the entire nanotechnology field has aged a millennia in just the past couple of years. This science that seems ripped from a comic book will be here sooner than you think.

Sarad estimates that within eight years there will be technologies on the open market that help regenerate some muscles, skin and tissues.

"That could impact players who are reaching the end of their playing careers," he says. "Make them healthier and younger and more viable."

Beyond that, Sarad says the advancements will continue at an alarming rate. "Within the next 25 years, we should understand how to rejuvenate people," he says.

Which is great news if you miss those old Orioles pitching staffs or would give anything to see the Baltimore Colts play again.

"It's an extraordinary time in the field of nanotechnology," is what Sarad says, which means that just around the corner, an extraordinary time in the field of sports awaits.

The trick now is taking this new science from a small dish to a living being. And then, of course, someone is going to have to call Hank. He might want to start stretching. The sanctity of sports depends on it.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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