Jake Vandermeer isn’t your average Stanford University volleyball player. The 20-year-old has helped come up with a potential cure for a crippling disease that affects about 1,200 children a year.
In March, Vandermeer presented a paper to the Orthopaedic Research Society, one of the few undergraduates ever to address the body. The 6-foot-5 junior at the Palo Alto, California-based university said the study found that, by combining the osteoporosis drug ibandronate with a naturally occurring protein that enhances bone growth, the effects of Legg-Calve-Perthes could be reversed.
The juvenile form of the disease that ended Bo Jackson’s professional football and baseball careers causes arthritis in people as young as 20 and often means hip replacement by 50.
“To see kids that had been in a clinic that morning and think that I was a part of something that could potentially make all their surgeries and physical therapy a historical relic, that is an incredible feeling,” Vandermeer said in a telephone interview.
The study found that, in about six to eight weeks, the treatment could reverse the flattening of the thigh bone near the hip socket caused by the disease. Vandermeer was working for Harry Kim, director of the Sarah M. and Charles E. Seay Center for Musculoskeletal Research at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children and director of the Center for Excellence in Hip Disorders in Dallas.
Kim, 46, came up with the idea for the study and had been doing research for 10 years. Vandermeer began working with him after high school when his father, Robert, an orthopedic surgeon and the Dallas Cowboys’ team doctor from 1987 to 1999, helped him land the research position. The full report was submitted to the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery in July.
“He’s very focused for his age,” Kim said in an interview. “A hard worker, a fast learner. He’s confident, but not overly so. It’s a big deal in terms of what he contributed to the work.”
Kim also said the study had side effects that have to be resolved, and that the procedure then has to be adapted for people. A clinical trial would follow.
Jackson, 47, was a two-sport all-star when his career was cut short by a version of the disease.
After winning the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player in 1985, Jackson played in the National Football League and Major League Baseball. A hip injury in 1991 revealed he had avascular necrosis, leading to the deterioration of the cartilage and bone around his left hip joint, and had a hip replacement that year. He made a brief comeback, before retiring in 1995.
A voicemail left for Jackson’s business manager, Becky Daniel, wasn’t immediately returned.
Vandermeer is getting used to success. He graduated as valedictorian from St. Mark’s School in Dallas with a 4.47 grade-point average and a perfect 1,600 on the college boards. He also was captain of the volleyball, tennis and junior engineering teams, and president of the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Club.
He was principal cellist of the Dallas Youth Orchestra and had his prize-winning composition, “Farewell for Piano and String Orchestra,” performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
Vandermeer kept up his passion for volleyball by playing on the Stanford club team in his freshman year. Two Cardinal assistant coaches recommended him to volleyball coach John Kosty, who gave the then-sophomore a tryout.
Kosty said out of reviews of 40 to 50 high school players each year, only between two and four get a spot on the team.
Vandermeer made the 20-man roster last season and played in five matches, though he was left off the 14-man travel squad because he lacked experience. The season starts Jan. 5.
“He walked on to a really talented team and proved he could play with them,” said Kosty, who led Stanford to the 2010 national title last season and was voted National Coach of the Year. “It’s so rare.”
Vandermeer, a chemical-engineering major with a 4.16 grade point average, is no longer certain he wants to pursue medical research and finds alternative energy intriguing.
He said his experience playing volleyball at Stanford has taught him valuable lessons.
“I help my classmates with the assignments and answer a lot of the questions,” he says. “But in volleyball, it’s me who is being challenged and who is receiving their help a lot of the time. And these guys are so gracious and so willing to work with me to help me grow and become better.”
“Volleyball has meant a lot to me,” he said. “It’s taught me many things. The big one is humility.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at email@example.com