Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 13th Jul 2008

Performance Enhancing Drugs

Professor Chris Cooper, University of Essex

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Weíve seen the news stories in previous Olympic tournaments where athletes have been caught using performance enhancing drugs, such as steroids, to increase their chances of winning their event. But how much of a boost is this really giving them? Weíve got Dr Chris Cooper from the University of Essex with us now to tell us more.

Chris - What sorts of things to people jam into themselves in order to boost performance?

Olympic runners

Chris C - All sorts of things. If you look at what Dwain Chambers, the current hot topic - he was taking at least seven or eight different compounds. He was taking insulin which diabetics take. He was taking testosterone, he was taking this thing called The Clear which is this magic compound developed in San Francisco to not be detected by the drugs testing agencies. He was taking thyroid hormone precursors. They take all sorts of things, some of which work and some of which may or may not work.

Chris - So if I wanted to performance enhance myself what agents would work in me?

Chris C - If youíre unfit lots of things will work actually. The difficulty is if youíre the super elite athlete. There are three general classes of performance enhancing drugs. Thereís anabolic steroids that youíve probably heard of, the things that build up your muscle mass. Thereís the things that boost your aerobic sports so the steroids help you for strength events. The compounds that help you in aerobic sports increase the amount of oxygen you can deliver: basically increase the number of red blood cells in your body. Then thereís the stimulants, things like amphetamines, cocaine, modafinil and those are a bit less clear whether they work or not.

Chris - Do you think theyíre more of a psychological effect because a lot of people say that a lot of winning a race is 90% psychology, donít they?

Chris C - Yeah, they are a psychological effect. Psychology is a branch of biochemistry, Iím a biochemist so theyíre neuropsychology. Yes, whether the drug is directly working on the brain or the athlete actually thinks theyíre getting an edge is an interesting question.

Chris - You think it might give them a sort of psychological angle because they feel more confident. Winners win races, donít they? Thereís this sort of winning streak phenomenon where people feel a confidence boost when they win once and this makes them win again.

Chris C - Sure. Thereís clearly examples of people being given placebos. Even in the Tour de France which is sort of the drug cocktail par excellence some of the people have said I didnít want to give him this super cocktail of stimulants and they gave him a sugar solution and he won the race. Itís a combination of things really.

Chris - Looking at the agents that you can put into your body, at the biochemical level how do they actually work?

Chris C - Thereís been a lot of work on this recently. Itís an ongoing area. The steroids, the anabolic steroids, it seems that they work by increasing you ability to improve your muscle mass after youíve donít the exercise. It used to be thought they let you exercise longer and harder when youíre doing your weights. Now itís thought that they mostly work on the remodelling after the exercise. Thatís probably how the steroids work. The compounds that increase your oxygen capacity work by increasing your amount of erithropoetin. This is whatís called EPO. That controls your number of red blood cells so you just basically increase your number of red blood cells.

Chris - If you go and do what some people used to do which is run up a mountain so that you have altitude training on your side, how does that work? Is that the same phenomenon?

Chris C - Yeah, the key is not to run up a mountain. It is to go up the mountain and donít run there. You go to the mountain and when youíre there your body adapts to having lower oxygen because thereís less oxygen up a mountain. It makes more red blood cells. The problem with that is you canít train so well up the mountain so the current idea is to live high, train low. You go up the mountain on the cable car, leave it there and come down to the bottom for your training.

Chris - I did read somewhere someone had bought the equivalent of an oxygen tent for their bed so they could simulate oxygen levels at say, halfway up Everest for sleeping. Then they would get out of their bed during the day and exercise at sea level. This was supposed to do the same thing as going up a mountain.

Chris C - Yeah. Theyíre very common, easily bought, not that expensive and not illegal. In the days of East Germany they used to have whole gymnasiums that were at low oxygen where the athletes just lived.

Chris - How can science also help athletes to do things in a legitimate way?

Chris C - At the University we do a number of things trying to mimic the effects that the drug might have. There are things like trying to hyperventilate before you exercise which changes your blood pH and means you can run 400m better. Thatís a sort of extreme version which is quite difficult. Other things to get you stimulated as equivalent of taking stimulants so you should try to train to have the same chemical effect. Then there are legal drugs that you could add.

Chris - Tell us a bit more about that. If I was to start training now what would be a good regimen for me and what sorts of equipment could I use to make sure I was effectively training the most efficiently?

Chris C - That would just depend completely on what sport you were going to do. If you were going to be a Paula Radcliffe or you were going to be Linford Christie. What you would do would depend completely on that. If you were doing a power event you would be in the gym most of the time especially in the off-season in the Winter. If you were doing the long-distance event you would be running long distances. Then of course you would have the nutrition team and the sports science team there working as well.

Mrinal Shah, New York - I wanted to know if there are any naturally derived (or if there are only synthetic) steroids. Also, if there are any natural steroids would it be possible for an athlete to get them in his daily diet? Would that disqualify him from any sporting events?

Chris C - Thatís a really interesting question. There are natural steroids. Testosterone is a natural steroid and obviously men have more of that than women do. Itís illegal to take testosterone because itís not part of your normal diet. You canít get a diet equivalent to fail a drugs test. Itís difficult to take a steroid in any normal diet to have an effect because they donít work orally. You have to inject the, Then itís obvious youíre doing the cheating. Where itís a more grey area is in some of the metabolites the body makes from these artificial compounds which are also illegal because the agencies say that means youíve taken the metabolites. Thereís a concern that if you exercise very hard on certain diets you might make small amounts of these metabolites naturally. Then itís a question of what level the drug company sets those out. Itís difficult to take the natural compound to fail a drugs test. The bodies make it that way. They donít want to fail people for that.

Mario - Whatís the fastest a human could run, theoretically. Whatís the fastest a human could sprint at with the aid of all the latest blood and drug enhancements?

Chris C - The cynical answer is to say we know that because we have Tim Montgomery as an example of somebody but then heíd been beaten by Usain Bolt. I think itís quite a difficult question to answer. The world record now is 9.72 [menís 100m] and no evidence thatís been done illegally. You can sort of extrapolate form that where you might get. I think increasingly weíre going to see genetic anomalies, people whoíve got a genetic aberration that makes them perform better and thatís going to be what makes the difference. A classic example was a Finnish cross-country skier who had a naturally active EPO system. He made in his body large amounts of red blood cells because he had a gene defect. It wasnít a defect, of course.  I think youíll see these step changes by people who happened to have had a mutation. Itís difficult to therefore extrapolate.

Chris - In this weekís British Medical Journal thereís an editorial by Dominic Wells whoís at Imperial College. Heís saying weíre all worried about drugs and things but how long is it going to be before people will start doping themselves with genes? We know that certain genes definitely can enhance performance. How long will it be before people can come up with ways to switch on or add genes to their muscles to make them more genetically fit, if you like?

Chris C - Iím sure people are thinking about this. If you read a scientific paper and say that can help you in sport Ė and people who publish these papers which are all done for medical reasons suddenly get hoards of people, usually body builders saying how can I do this? Itís difficult but itís surprising that just changing one gene or up-regulating one gene seems to have an effect on human performance. I was surprised but certainly if any of you have gone YouTube-ing you can see this picture of this mouse thatís had one extra gene put into its muscle and itís running on the treadmill. Itís going forever and ever like a sort of Duracellģ mouse. I think itís clear that the World Anti-Doping Agency have conferences trying to test for this. I think itís going to be difficult, I think it will be hard to do it because we canít even do it in medicine yet.

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