Olympics testers gear up for sophisticated dopers

LONDON,  (Reuters) – The battle to keep drugs out of  the London Olympics has started long before the opening ceremony  next July.

A sophisticated laboratory provided by Britain’s largest  drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which will be packed with  highly sensitive, rapid testing equipment and staffed around the  clock with up to 100 scientists, stands ready and waiting.

Games organisers hope that their preparedness will deter  cheats.

“We have a state-of-the-art facility, we have the best  detection systems going, we’re right up to date with the  science, and if athletes know you’ve got good testing and good  detection systems, it really has a deterrent effect,” said David  Cowan, head of the Drug Control Centre at King’s College London  and the man who will oversee London 2012’s anti-doping regime.

His staff, which he has expanded to include eight times as  many scientists as he would normally have, are aiming to conduct  more than 5,000 tests at the London Olympics – roughly one for  every two of the 10,000 or so athletes expected to take part.

As the science of detecting doping advances, athletes who  cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs are devising ever  more sophisticated doping regimes.

The drugs of choice for cheats cross a range of categories  from anabolic steroids to human growth hormone, blood boosters  such as erythropoietin (EPO), beta-blockers and stimulants or  diuretics.

Andy Parkinson, chief executive of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD)  said that until recently, cheats tended to stick to predictable  drugs – power athletes such as weight lifters used anabolic  steroids and endurance athletes such as cyclists and rowers used  blood boosters.

BLOOD
 TRANSFUSIONS       

With advances in detection methods, however, the cheats were  being forced into using a little more ingenuity.

“What we’re seeing much more of now is sophisticated dopers  who use multiple substances in a very tailored way,” Parkinson  told Reuters in an interview.

“There’s a recognition that any substance can give you an  enhancement – you just have to use it in the right way.”

For some, the need to evade highly-sensitive tests has even  meant going back to “traditional” ways of blood doping that  avoid the need for detectable drugs – using transfusions of  their own blood which they have taken out and stored until they  need a boost and transfuse it back in. Cowan says he is confident the science will be there to  detect such transfusions by the time next year’s Games start.

“There is now much more research funding for scientists to  be able to develop better methods of detection. There are very  few loopholes, and they are being heavily researched,” he said.

Anti-doping experts are keen to ensure a lasting legacy from  London 2012 which they hope will make sport cleaner and fairer  in the future.

For Parkinson that means “going upstream” to find the  coaches, the assistant coaches, the advisers and even the  chemists who manufacture, supply and push doping drugs.

 ROGUE LABORATORIES       

UKAD and its global umbrella group the World Anti Doping  Agency (WADA) are primarily focused on testing, catching and  deterring drug cheats, but both groups are increasingly working  in law enforcement agencies such as Interpol to gather and use  intelligence about supply and trafficking of doping drugs.

WADA’s director general David Howman said earlier this year  that a criminal underworld now controlled a large proportion of  world sport.

Pauline Williams a medicines discovery and development  scientist at GSK, said going upstream should also mean seeking  to stem the original source of the drugs – rogue laboratories.

GSK signed a deal with WADA this month to help scientists  develop early detection methods for drugs that have  performance-enhancing potential.

“In the past…I don’t think we appreciated the  sophistication that’s out there in terms of these rogue labs,  copying our drugs at such an early stage. They’re getting ever  more creative,” she told Reuters.

“From a pharma perspective we’re keen to be more  transparent…but that is really a gift to these rogue labs who  can see our data, see the chemical structure and have chemists  who can then produce the drugs illegally. It’s the dark  side.”

Experts say drugs have probably been used to enhance  sporting performance for hundreds, if not thousands of years, so  it is unlikely the problem of doping will be solved at London  2012, or anytime soon after that.

Anti-doping authorities say that is no reason to give in and  Parkinson sees this as one of sport’s most important contests.  “Science is always challenged to keep up,” he said.

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