For instance, since the late 1980s unscrupulous competitors have used erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that stimulates the production of oxygen-ferrying red blood cells. The drug increases the blood’s oxygen capacity, boosting endurance and stamina by as much as 15%. When drug testers finally developed a test for EPO, dopers turned to next-generation versions of the drug, originally developed to treat severe anaemia in cancer patients.
But this time, Wada was ready. Recognising that it was all but inevitable that rogue athletes would turn to versions of EPO still under development, WADA had begun collaborating with companies to ensure that it would have a test waiting. “We recognise the need to anticipate trends,” says Wada’s director Olivier Rabin.
While legitimate scientists aren’t developing drugs specifically for performance enhancement, numerous researchers are working on disease-fighting medications that might also boost athletic performance, and many of them have received calls from coaches or athletes seeking to obtain such drugs before they’re approved or publicly available. These requests are usually rebuffed, yet some of these early stage drugs (or products claiming to contain them) still make their way to the black market.
“There are a lot of people out there who are willing to be the human guinea pig,” Eichner says. As evidence, he points to the proliferation of products for sale on the internet that purport to contain myostatin inhibitors. Myostatin is a hormone that regulates muscle growth. “If you knock that out or inhibit myostatin, then your muscles just keep growing,” Eichner says. Belgian bulls lack myostatin, resulting in extreme musculature – they look like bovine Arnold Schwarzeneggers.
Researchers are studying myostatin inhibitors for the treatment of obesity and diabetes, but no products have been approved for use yet, and some research suggests they may make users more prone to muscle and tendon injuries. But none of this has stopped would-be dopers. “Are they available for clinical use? Not yet,” says Eichner. “But you can still buy them on the black market.” The regulation of such sales falls to agencies like the Food and Drug Administration in the US, but Wada has reacted by reaching out to researchers and companies studying substances like these to recruit their help with detection.
For instance, GlaxoSmithKline has signed an agreement with Wada to give the Agency advance warning about the development of products that cheats might try so that anti-doping officials can get ahead of the curve. Myostatin inhibitors are listed on Wada’s prohibited list and they are already detectable using standard laboratory techniques. Working quietly with drug developers allows Wada to maintain an element of surprise and keep cheaters on alert. “When an athlete cheats, our goal is to catch them. If we tell them about a new test ahead of time it defeats the purpose,” says Rabin.
Not every new testing method gets adopted quietly, however. Wada’s most ambitious detection method had a very public inception. “The biological passport has changed the paradigm,” Rabin says. The passport – essentially an electronic record – stores snapshots of an athlete’s physiological parameters at various times in the season to establish an athlete’s normal values and look for discrepancies between tests that could indicate doping. Instead of looking for a particular substance in the blood or urine, the passport reveals the tell-tale physiological effects that a given substance or method provoke. The technique is already in use and will provide a crucial component of the London 2012 testing programme.