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Rediff.com  » Sports » Science catching up with drug cheats: Paris lab

Science catching up with drug cheats: Paris lab

November 25, 2003 18:22 IST

The THG epidemic is over, gene therapy belongs to the realm of fantasy but blood transfusions could again become the doping means of choice for athletes seeking to warp sporting achievement.

That is the opinion of the head of a Paris laboratory that developed the urine test for the banned EPO blood-boosting drug and has just finished re-testing samples from the athletics world championships for the designer steroid THG.

Jacques de Ceaurriz believes scientists fighting doping have made up a lot of ground on the sporting cheats in recent years and are even ahead of them in certain areas.

"We're like cops chasing criminals -- we shouldn't have any illusions, they are always adapting and looking for areas we haven't investigated," De Ceaurriz said in an interview.

"We can't just look around and guess all the directions they are going to go but we are better armed to fight back.

"We are not isolated -- anti-doping benefits from scientific advances in the areas of human genetics and proteins. We will be increasingly better equipped."

De Ceaurriz runs a 40-strong team at his laboratory on the outskirts of Paris, one of 30 accredited by the International Olympic Committee to conduct tests and, increasingly, undertake research in areas of science where drug cheats could operate.

Following the 1998 Tour de France doping scandal, the lab announced a urine test for the stamina-boosting substance erythropoietin (EPO), a major breakthrough which was introduced for the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

"We have already made improvements and the test, while not perfect, is almost perfect," said De Ceaurriz whose scientists concentrate their efforts on blood-associated products.

"We are continuing to work on current erythropoietins and those of the future -- you shouldn't make the mistake of thinking (EPO) is sorted.

"We know that cellular implants of EPO inserted under the skin exist, where the EPO gene has been activated. It's like insulin for diabetics, they are trying to reduce the number of injections."

BLOOD DOPING

The success of EPO testing, which claimed double gold winner Johann Muehlegg of Spain at the 2002 Winter Olympics, has led athletes to look into other means of blood doping.

The lab is trying to develop a general test for modified haemoglobins or HBOC (haemoglobin blood oxygen carriers).

"The future is not to detect products case by case but to differentiate between endogenous products (created by the body) and exogenous. There are so many differences," De Ceaurriz said.

The lab is taking a similar approach to corticosteroids, which occur naturally in the body but are also in manufactured drugs used to reduce inflammation and asthma drugs. Athletes use them as stimulants and painkillers.

"Our ability to test for them has advanced a lot in the past five years and our goal is to establish a norm, based on scientific criteria, so we know where therapeutic use starts and where doping practice starts.

"That is really difficult because it isn't a matter of black and white, it's grey."

One of the lab director's worries is that drug-taking in athletics and society in general has become an everyday matter. Another is that the crackdown on EPO will revive one of the main means of building stamina illegally -- blood transfusions.

"I think there is a risk, it's one of the things we should think about. There were a lot of blood transfusions in nordic skiing before they went over to EPO.

"We risk returning to transfusion in the years to come."

SUCCESSFUL STRIKE

De Ceaurriz believes the successful strike against those using THG means drug cheats will not employ that steroid again.

Two athletes tested positive after the retroactive tests at the world championships in addition to five others previously. A grand jury in San Francisco is investigating the BALCO lab, which specialised in nutritional supplements, and hearing from its clients.

"I think it (the THG problem) is finished. It will be like EPO, where there was epidemic because there was no test. As soon as you have a test, the epidemic stops of its own accord."

De Ceaurriz does not hold with those who think the next major doping battleground will be gene therapy which athletes seeking a physical advantage could use to change their body at a genetic level.

"The worst thing we can do is to make up catastrophic scenarios," he said. "It's good to make predictions but we must not let pie-in-the-sky ideas mask reality.

"For the moment, genetic doping does not exist. The system of distribution, its traceability are extremely closely controlled.

"Even in 10 or 15 years it will not be done easily -- the scientific community will not let it happen."

Francois Thomazeau
Source:
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