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The race between science and new doping techniques

With the Olympics being held in London later this year, and the controversial abolishment of lifetime banning for athletes caught using illegal performance enhancing drugs, there has never been a better time to try and cheat your way to the top. The desire to be the best in your field is what drives professional athletes to be at the top of their game. When this desire gets too much, it can push athletes to use illegal drugs and other performance-enhancing methods.

With rapid progress in the field of sports science, the ways by which athletes enhance their performance are evolving rapidly. New methods are emerging that threaten to undermine the efforts of those who try to win honestly.

Recent research has shown that drinking large amounts of green or white tea is enough to mask the illegal use of testosterone in deceptive athletes. The use of testosterone by athletes is currently illegal since it is known to increases muscle mass. Unfortunately it is extremely hard to detect athletes who are using testosterone since the hormone occurs naturally in both men and women. However, some tests are capable of detecting increased levels of testosterone. These rely on looking at the ratio between testosterone and another hormone found in urine, epitestosterone.  A study at Kingston University London has found that tea contains unusually high levels of anti-oxidants called catechins. These inhibit an enzyme required for testosterone to be excreted in urine, meaning that athletes drinking large volumes of tea will secrete less testosterone, so can evade detection by current doping tests. Therefore green tea can effectively help ‘fool’ scientists into thinking that an athlete is clean. Who knew the quintessentially British ‘cup of tea’ could benefit dishonest athletes, pulling the wool over the world’s eyes!

Another potential ‘game-changer’ facing the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is the concept of using doping genes to improve an athlete’s performance. Research at the International Centre of Genetic Engineering and Bio-technology in Italy has found that injecting certain growth genes into mice causes  them to develop significantly more muscle mass than non-treated animals. A virus, acting as a carrier, is used to implant the gene for Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) into muscle cells in the mice. Mice injected with the gene are able to swim for three times as long as normal animals. Along with increased endurance, the IGF-1 gene also triggers production of 10 times more protein than is seen in normal muscles and an increase in genes controlling energy production, muscle contraction and respiration – all vital for a ‘super-human’ sportsman (or woman)!

When testing for indications of this in blood and urine samples from treated mice, there was no trace of any of the implanted gene, protein or virus. This may make it possible for doping cheats to get around the laws! Biopsies of athletes’ muscles would show up differences between the structure of the muscles of a trained athlete and a cheat, however, there are ethical concerns over subjecting athletes to such tests.

At a recent conference held in London, aptly called Tackling Doping in Sport, it emerged that new blood and urine tests were currently under development that could potentially expose ‘DNA doping’. If all else fails, authorities could expose cheats using this method of performance enhancement by creating a biological passport for each professional athlete. This file would regularly record the profiles of an athlete and would indicate when a dramatic change in their fitness is observed.

The idea of a biological passport is considered by some to be controversial. This could mean that honest athletes, who train and compete well within the laws of their sport, may end up being severely penalised because of corrupt athletes who want to cheat their way to the top. It is easy to argue that athletes join the profession knowing they are required to provide fluid samples if requested. However, muscle biopsies and biological passports may be considered a step too far!

Although regulating bodies have identified gene doping as an imminent threat to the sporting community, no athlete has yet been caught using this method.   Due to the growing potential of gene doping, WADA is taking a proactive stance to ensure that athletes attempting to use this method will be identified, and that structures will be in place to test for such cases.

The world of sport is being flooded with novel ways in which athletes can illegally improve their performance. This field is evolving from one where hormones in the body are elevated to improve performance, to a field where athletes could potentially use viruses to interfere with their DNA. The exact nature of how athletes will try to dodge drug tests in the future is not clear, although we can be certain that some will try their hardest! It will be interesting to observe the evolution of ways to test for illegal drugs in sport, to reflect novel performance enhancement ideas. Whatever happened to putting in the hard work yourself, and reaping the benefits?

Post by: Samantha Lawrence

About The Brain Bank North West

The brain bank comprises a group of scientists from the North West of England eager to enthuse and entertain with their scientific banter. To learn more about who we are see the our 'about' page. You can also find us on twitter @brainbankmanc or email us [email protected]
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