Fight­ing against dop­ing a con­stant bat­tle

China Daily (USA) - - VIEWS -

Elite sports and dop­ing have long been deeply in­ter­linked. Reach­ing an elite level in sports re­quires a tremen­dous amount of hard work, ded­i­ca­tion and fo­cus. By def­i­ni­tion, few suc­ceed, but those who do may en­joy great per­sonal and fi­nan­cial re­wards. Us­ing per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing sub­stances can seem like an easy way to boost one’s chances of reach­ing — or re­main­ing at — that top level.

Dop­ing in sports has most likely been go­ing on for cen­turies. But the suc­cess­ful iso­la­tion of an­dro­genic an­abolic steroids brought a surge in the prac­tice in the 1930s. The ef­fects on per­for­mance can be seen in the ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sults of East Ger­man ath­letes in the 1970s and 1980s, some of whose records have yet to be bro­ken. But the draw­backs of an­abolic steroids were no less ob­vi­ous: those same ath­letes of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced in­fer­til­ity, car­dio­vas­cu­lar prob­lems, tu­mors and other ad­verse ef­fects.

Af­ter a dop­ing test for th­ese steroids be­came manda­tory in 1975, nu­mer­ous ath­letes have been caught and sanc­tioned. Yet th­ese sub­stances re­main the most com­monly abused in elite sports.

An­other com­mon dop­ing sub­stance is re­com­bi­nant ery­thro­poi­etin (EPO), a pro­tein that in­creases en­durance by stim­u­lat­ing pro­duc­tion of oxy­gen-car­ry­ing red blood cells. The down­side is in­creased risk of stroke and my­ocar­dial in­farc­tion. In one of the great­est dop­ing scan­dals of the 21st cen­tury, Lance Arm­strong, seven-time Tour de France win­ner, was found to have used it af­ter years of de­nial. Some ath­letes also re­sort to so-called blood dop­ing— trans­fu­sions of oxy­genated blood be­fore an event, which achieves a sim­i­lar re­sult as EPO.

Since its es­tab­lish­ment in 1999, World Anti-Dop­ing Agency has been lead­ing the charge to curb dop­ing by im­prov­ing de­tec­tion and test­ing. Re­searchers have con­tin­u­ally de­vel­oped new, more ac­cu­rate meth­ods for de­tect­ing a wider va­ri­ety of sub­stances.

One re­cent in­no­va­tion is a test­ing method that de­tects long-term me­tab­o­lites left be­hind by an­abolic steroids. Re-anal­y­sis of test sam­ples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games us­ing th­ese tech­niques shows up to 8 per­cent were pos­i­tive for dop­ing, com­pared with the 1 per­cent pre­vi­ously de­tected. To max­i­mize the im­pact of this tech­nol­ogy, dop­ing tests are now re­quired more fre­quently, not only dur­ing com­pe­ti­tions, but also be­tween them. But just as the tech­nol­ogy for de­tect­ing sub­stances im­proves, new meth­ods of ar­ti­fi­cial per­for­mance en­hance­ment emerge. In par­tic­u­lar, the rise of gene ther­apy has raised the pos­si­bil­ity of in­tro­duc­ing genes or ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied cells into the body to boost ath­letic per­for­mance. Clin­i­cal tri­als are on­go­ing for sev­eral genes of in­ter­est for en­hanc­ing ath­letic per­for­mance, in­clud­ing EPO. Ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests that the many known and un­known risks as­so­ci­ated with gene ther­apy will do lit­tle to de­ter its use for dop­ing pur­poses. With “gene dop­ing” close to be­com­ing a re­al­ity, WADA is al­ready work­ing to counter it. Gene dop­ing has been pro­hib­ited since 2003, and the first de­tec­tion method, based on EPO’s gene se­quence, was im­ple­mented this year.

The key to that method is dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween nor­mal genes, which con­tain both cod­ing and non-cod­ing el­e­ments, and ar­ti­fi­cial genes, which con­tain only the cod­ing el­e­ments. DNA with­out non-cod­ing el­e­ments that has leaked into plasma is ev­i­dence of gene dop­ing. Other po­ten­tial de­tec­tion meth­ods, likely to be im­ple­mented in the near fu­ture, could iden­tify traces of the vi­ral vec­tor or de­tect ac­ti­vat­ing sub­stances used to en­hance ac­tiv­ity of the newly in­tro­duced gene.

The bat­tle against dop­ing in elite sports can some­times feel in­ter­minable. Ad­vances in de­tec­tion, how­ever im­pres­sive, seem to be con­tin­u­ally out­paced by in­no­va­tions in dop­ing. But giv­ing up is not an op­tion. Dop­ing deeply un­der­mines the in­tegrity of elite sports, which are sup­posed to be a demon­stra­tion of what the hu­man body can achieve — not how far ex­treme phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion of the hu­man body can take us. The au­thor is a re­searcher at Karolin­ska In­sti­tute in Solna, Swe­den. Project Syn­di­cate

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