Why you should care
Because of all the things we know, nothing is more certain than this: you will get sick.
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Most Americans grow up believing that Henry Ford invented the automobile. But it was Karl Benz, working in a foundry in Mannheim, Germany, who developed the first Motorwagen when Henry was just a teenager assembling watches on his family’s farm.
Today just as many Americans would like to think we represent the only frontier of medical innovation and bioscience. But that would be Falsch! The country that brought us Mercedes, Audi and BMW is attracting attention — and millions of American dollars — for its cutting-edge medical care.
The country that brought us Mercedes, Audi and BMW is attracting millions of American dollars for its cutting-edge medical care.
Such advances have caused a huge boom in the number of medical tourists traveling to Germany, nicknamed “the hospital of Europe.” Just ask a professional athlete. For those whose bodies are their livelihoods, Germany is the medical destination of choice. You’ve probably heard about the mysterious off-season pilgrimages that scandal-laden Alex Rodriguez and a brittle-boned Andrew Bynum have made to Deutschland.
And it’s not just athletes like Usain Bolt and Paula Radcliffe seeking breakthrough therapies who are deplaning in Germany — a wide cross-section of the rich and powerful from Bono to super-agent Ari Emanuel and Pope John Paul II have bypassed the Mayo Clinic and Dana Farber Institute for places like Düsseldorf, Munich and the University Medical Center in Freiburg with its five Nobel Laureates in medicine.
The country’s recent advances in medicine and medical technology are nothing short of astounding. Take Munich surgeon Ulrike Muschaweck’s breakthrough surgical procedure for sports hernia, which puts athletes back on the field in five to seven days instead of the usual six to 12 weeks. Sports hernias are a common hazard for professional athletes, but with Muschaweck’s minimally invasive technique, they can resume training just two days after surgery.
Athletes are also flocking to Germany for a class of treatments known as “biologic medicine,” in which the patient’s own tissues are extracted, manipulated and reintroduced into the body. The most popular example is a novel blood treatment that alleviates joint pain called Regenokine. A portion of the patient’s blood is removed, heated and then spun in a centrifuge, extracting healing proteins that get injected into the affected joint.
Just ask a professional athlete. For those whose bodies are their livelihoods, Germany is the medical destination of choice.
NBA players typically peak at around 24 to 27 years old, but Regenokine and other biologics have allowed Kobe Bryant and others to extend their play well into their 30s. After the aging athlete flew to Germany in October for another round of platelet rich plasma therapy (PRP), a treatment similar to Regenokine, he even posted photos of the procedure on Instagram.
Although the FDA has approved two methods of PRP, Regenokine and other biologics have yet to be given the green light, revealing an uncertainty about these types of treatments. Many of them are only a few years old, meaning there is little proof of their effectiveness over the long term.
“It is important that we not put the cart before the horse,” said Robert LaPrade, chief medical research officer at the Steadman Philippon Research Institute in Colorado. “We should require good scientific evidence of the efficacy of these treatments before they are widely utilized in patients.”
Well beyond sports injuries, Germany’s avant-garde treatments are making news the world over. Consider the bone marrow transplant that led to the first-ever patient being cured of HIV. In 2007 Timothy Ray Brown of Seattle received a transplant when he was living in Berlin to cure leukemia, which was unrelated to his HIV infection. His doctor used the procedure as an opportunity to find a donor with a rare genetic mutation that blocks HIV from entering the body’s cells. Brown stopped taking HIV drugs before his transplant — and hasn’t needed them since.
And there are game-changing devices such as the ReinHeart artificial heart, which provides patients with a fully implantable lifeline while waiting for a donor organ. So far the device has been successful in an animal trial, and the first human clinical trial is planned for 2015.
A breakthrough surgical procedure for sports hernia puts athletes back on the field in five to seven days instead of the usual six to 12 weeks.
Germany has long been a hotbed of medical research, and even the Nazis, despite their abhorrent methods, identified the connection between smoking and lung cancer two decades before the Surgeon General issued his warning.
Not to mention, the country practically invented sports medicine. The first association of sports physicians in the world was founded in Oberhof in 1913, and the term “sports physician” was coined in Berlin a year later.
“We [Americans] think we are always the best,” said Christa Altenstetter, a professor of political science at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and Queens College, ”and that is the biggest illusion that one can imagine.”
What’s next? Personalized medicine and its promise that treatments for terminal diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease can be adapted to the needs of individual patients. The German government, with a new 5.5 billion euro health research initiative; the country’s largest biotech company, Qiagen; and the city of Munich, which has sunk a hundred million euros on a cluster of local biotech and pharmaceutical companies, are all targeting this growing field.
So the next time you’re griping about an arthritic joint, or worse, you might look to “old Europe” for a brand-new cure.
Melissa Pandika contributed to this story.