The old saying that 'drug cheats are always one step ahead' is pushing anti-doping officials to knock on the doors of major pharmaceutical companies in the fight against drugs in sport.
Global sporting authorities are well aware that taking action upstream can break the cycle that has seen athletes ready to act as guinea pigs in their bid to reach the winners' podium by using the latest in medication to boost power or stamina.
One such pact was reached late last month between the French government, the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), an union of pharmaceutical companies and France's sanitary supervision agency. The goal is to establish a double alert level while identifying products that could be misused for doping in early clinical testing, or during final sanitary checks before a drug goes on the market.
This initiative, which the French government would like to see expanded at least within the European Union, was presented last week in Biarritz, at a meeting of EU sports ministers.
Cheaters should be worried
Cheats have reasons to be concerned about cooperation between anti-doping laboratories and the pharmaceutical or biotechnological industry, as proved during the 2008 Tour de France. Italian cyclists Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli, Austrian Bernard Kohl and German Stefan Schumacher thought in July they were a mile ahead of the squad by using Cera, a banned blood-oxygen booster.
Cera is a third-generation erythropoetin (EPO) drug produced by the Swiss company Roche which had just been put on the markets in Austria and Germany. But Wada had already spotted Cera as early as in 2004.
It warned Roche, which then started to cooperate with the Wada-accredited Swiss Anti-Doping Laboratory (Lad), allowing it access not only to the molecule itself but also to detection tests developed for its own patients.
The results served as secondary evidence, while the guilt of the four racers was confirmed by another test developed by the French laboratory of Chatenay-Malabry.
"Cera was the first collaboration with a big pharmaceutical group on such a scale," said Olivier Rabin, Wada's science director. One of the first steps was made in 2002, when US biotech firm Amgen Inc provided samples of its newly developed EPO, Aranesp, enabling authorities to identify several cheats who won medals at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Cooperation will benefit pharmaceuticals too
Wada says it has since established cooperation - acting from case to case - with corporations developing substances judged as "the most promising ones," under a confidentiality clause.
"Their goal is to treat patients and not to have healthy individuals use a product and have it poorly administered," insists Rabin. He estimates that the "pharmaceutical industry has became aware of its responsibilities".
"The new move is beginning to gain ground," noted Martial Saugy, head of the Lausanne anti-doping laboratory. He adds that "during the 1990s, most of the pharmaceutical corporations believed they would not benefit from cooperating with us."
"Others agreed in the name of ethics, but were afraid of being obliged to spend astronomical sums to add a mark to their product."
Such cooperation could also provide benefits to pharmaceutical industry in their fight against counterfeit drugs, while laboratories which know very well their products are able to report any molecules that are copied. – (Sapa, December 2008)
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