NEEDLES, blood, athletes - the combination has proved ruinous in elite sport, but in AFL football legal injecting is a burgeoning business that's accelerating the recovery of players and giving clubs that are willing to experiment an edge.
Groundbreaking Orthokine therapy, which involves a series of blood injections, did not get Hawthorn's Brent Guerra to the grand final in time, as the 2008 premiership player, who tore his hamstring 24 days ago, yesterday pulled the pin on his grand final hopes. However, the Hawks are at the forefront of a movement that Melbourne-based musculoskeletal radiologist Dr Paul Marks predicts will soon be commonplace across the AFL and lead to players banking their blood.
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Six clubs have already tried Orthokine treatment and there has been an influx of interstate players booking in to Melbourne's Olympic Park clinic, which is pioneering the treatment in Australia.
This year alone Marks, who regularly assists Hawthorn on match days and practises at Olympic Park, has fast-tracked the recovery of about 20 AFL players struck by joint and soft-tissue afflictions by injecting them with their own blood.
The blood is incubated in a test tube containing tiny glass beads before it is re-injected - generally in three or four sessions - to the injured area.
Guerra received the treatment, as did St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt. But the player who encouraged Marks that the treatment could revolutionise AFL football came from Essendon. That player, whom the doctor would not name due to practitioner-patient confidentiality, enjoyed such success using Orthokine that he returned from a soft-tissue injury that was originally expected to sideline him for eight to 10 weeks after only five weeks.
Invented by German doctor Peter Wehling and used in Europe for about seven years, Orthokine is approved by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority but is not approved in America due to the US Food and Drug Administration's view that there should be more independent trials of the technique. Orthokine therapy has been used at Melbourne's Olympic Park clinic for the past eight months.
The method works because the glass beads in the test tubes draw out a chemical from the blood that, when re-injected, promotes healing by countering another chemical - interleukin - that causes pain and inflammation.
''It's been quite revolutionary. We've got AFL players flying in from all over the country at the moment having end-of-season joint injections,'' Marks told The Age.
''This is all the patient's own blood, so it's very nice from that point of view. There are none of those allergic-type reactions you get with whacky serums and things being injected.
''We've done probably 120 patients now and we're getting a 95 per cent response rate, which is unheard of.
''It's 'performance-enabling', to use someone else's terms, but not really enhancing. We're just speeding up the natural way of healing, if you like, with normal cells that are in your bloodstream.''
The treatment costs about $1000, much less than surgery. Marks believes the cost will fall as the technique becomes more popular - particularly in the AFL.
''I'm developing a lot of confidence in the product and I'm half thinking that, in a couple of years' time, guys might just come in at the start of the pre-season and get their blood taken,'' he said. ''We'll store it and have it ready to go and, as they hurt themselves … we'll have it ready to go and just inject as needed to top them up, get them going and get the repair processes started.
''I think it's going to be great with soft-tissue injuries and we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg with this sort of stuff.''
Since Hawthorn won its last premiership in 2008, the club has employed a radiologist on match days, regularly Marks, to administer injections - typically local anaesthetic - using ultrasound technology. A Hawks supporter, Marks said last night that he believed Hawthorn was the only club in the AFL that used ultrasound-guided injections on match days.
''We've got very good at targeting abnormal bits of tissue and abnormal tendons very quickly,'' he said.
Marks said tendon injuries had been treated with a player's own blood for more than a decade, but the technology had progressed.
''We had to be very careful [with re-injecting] because the AFL had a problem initially; we had to make sure that it was done into a tendon rather than into a muscle because it was initially thought to be like a type of blood doping,'' he said.
''Then we started to process the blood, just spinning it and getting out the plasma. Now we're getting more specific about what we're getting out of the blood.''