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Scientists seeking $4.5 million to study a new kind of stem cell therapy for tendon and ligament injuries find out on Wednesday if their proposal will receive funding, and they’ve got an unlikely cheerleader standing on the sidelines: US Olympic gold medalist swimmer Jason Lezak.

Lezak, who has won four gold medals in the Olympics, penned one of three published letters of support for the grant application, joining the likes of orthopedic surgeons Dr. Cato Laurencin of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and Dr. Brett Owens of Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School. (The identity of the grant applicant has not been made public.)


“I think stem cells are an interesting potential treatment option, but I do not hear about much stem cell research to treat sports injuries,” Lezak told STAT.

Lezak acknowledged that he’s not an expert on the science behind stem cells, but has seen firsthand how tendon and ligament injuries can knock athletes out of commission for months at a time.

“That can have a real negative impact on your career,” Lezak said. “Athletes are always looking to recover faster and stronger.”


In some cases, Lezak said, he’s seen fellow athletes seek that speedy recovery by trying stem cell therapies that haven’t been approved by federal regulators.

That motivated Lezak to throw his weight behind this particular grant, which proposes to use a surgical technique involving ultrasound to introduce genes that recruit stem cells to the site of torn ligaments and tendons.

And though the application had been rejected by reviewers for California’s stem cell agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, it’ll get a second chance at securing funding on Wednesday when the agency’s governing board meets near San Francisco to discuss this grant application, along with another once-rejected $8 million proposal from the Scripps Research Institute’s Jeanne Loring to develop a stem cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease.

The board can either approve or override the funding decisions already made by its panel of reviewers.

That gives Lezak hope that there will one day be safe, effective stem cell therapies to address ligament and tendon injuries, for which he points out there’s certainly a market in the athletic world.

“Many people would be interested in these treatments,” he said.