Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report

6  Keeping ahead of the game

Horizon scanning

97. One of the purposes of this inquiry was to establish which illegal HETs might be in use by the 2012 Olympic Games. Although many prohibited HETs may be found listed and advertised on websites, we wished to explore what is being done to identify additional potential substances and methods. Development of prohibited HETs generally arises from disciplines and areas not necessarily associated with the sporting community, and it is clear that knowledge of what is going on elsewhere in science would be beneficial in understanding potential areas for abuse in sport. For example, the majority of developments in this area appear to follow on from the application of medical research and pharmaceuticals in treatment of medical conditions. Gene doping, for example, stems from the advent of gene therapy, a massive advance in medicine which will hopefully, in the future, be able to save and change the lives of many individuals who currently suffer from irreversible and incurable diseases. Better understanding of medical advances in gene therapy may help identify possibilities for gene doping. Another source of information regarding potential areas of doping is through learning about the types of substances being brought into the UK. Whilst on a Committee visit to Australia we were interested to hear about the relationship the Australian Anti-Doping Agency (ASADA) has built up with the Australian Customs Service. Information is shared between the bodies, for example on substances brought into the country, and this is then used in the identification of potential illegal HETs in sport.

98. As the body directly responsible for anti-doping in the UK, we expected UK Sport to have a good knowledge of the HETs which might pose a threat and to be involved in the development of methods to test for them. However, this was not the case. In response to our call for evidence to this inquiry, UK Sport was obliged to consult with a number of leading experts to identify this information.[168] Whilst UK Sport could be congratulated for the initiative shown in implementing such a consultation process, we find it a matter of concern that the UK's national anti-doping organisation does not appear to scan the horizon on a regular basis and have such information readily at hand in the fight against doping. There is a need for a UK horizon-scanning capacity for developments in doping to be enhanced. This should include monitoring of websites whereby HETs can be easily purchased and liaison with HM Revenue and Customs to establish what substances are currently being brought into the UK which may be used to illegally enhance performance, either now or in the future. There is also a need for better scanning of current developments in other scientific disciplines (for example, genetics) to determine potential future illegal HETs. We recommend that the Government establish effective means of monitoring and evaluating potential areas of threat from doping prior to the London 2012 Olympics. We recommend that this responsibility be given to the new organisation in charge of testing, investigation and prosecution of doping offences, distinct from UK Sport, as recommended earlier in this Report.

Research into illegal HETs


99. During this inquiry, witnesses have identified several HETs which might pose a threat to the London 2012 Olympics, and we found persuasive Dr Hamilton of UK Athletics who told us of his personal belief that "every component of the WADA code will be challenged over the next ten to fifteen years".[169] Drugs are an example of such HETs since, as we heard from Professor McGrath of the University of Glasgow, "pharmacology will always develop; drugs are continuously developing, they have been for the last fifty years and that will carry on".[170] Pharmaceuticals of interest to the sporting world may include stimulants which act on the central nervous or cardiovascular systems, perhaps in raising aggression, confidence or alertness. A well known example of a 'designer drug' is Tetrahydrogestronone (THG), an anabolic steroid modified so as to make it undetectable under normal drug testing. THG was discovered following the 2003 US-based Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) investigation[171] which resulted in the British 100 metre sprinter Dwain Chambers, amongst others, receiving a two-year ban.[172]

100. Hormones may also pose a threat to fair play during the London 2012 Olympics. Examples include Human Growth Hormone which can aid recovery from injury, promote strength and burn fat, or the glycoprotein hormone erythropoietin (EPO) which regulates red blood cell production and hence the oxygen-carrying capacity of the circulation,[173] as described below. Dr Hamilton from UK Athletics told us that, for endurance sport at least, EPO will "continue to be a problem through 2012".[174]

101. Blood doping is thought by some, for example Dr Richard Budgett of the BOA, to be a serious concern for anti-doping by 2012.[175] The term 'blood doping' refers to the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells (RBCs) in the circulation in order to enhance performance in endurance events by increasing the RBC content and therefore the oxygen-carrying capacity of the athlete's circulatory system, for example to the muscles. Blood doping is commonly undertaken through the intravenous infusion of blood. The infused blood may have been previously removed (from the same athlete) and stored or it may come from another source.[176] As the detection and understanding of EPO (which has a similar effect, see above) has become more advanced, athletes have reverted back to blood doping, presenting real problems for detection programmes since as explained by UK Sport, "an athlete growing and using their own blood [is] impossible to detect if the levels are below those reported for an adverse analytical finding".[177]

102. Gene doping, or the modulation of an athlete's genetic material or its expression to improve performance, is also thought of as a potential threat to the London 2012 Olympics. WADA is taking the issue very seriously: it has convened conferences to discuss gene doping with top experts and is supporting research into its detection.[178] Genes of interest to the sporting world could include those involved in increasing production of naturally occurring substances such as Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) which stimulates muscle growth and speeds healing and repair. This form of doping would also be potentially useful to athletes looking to use alternative effects on genes such as causing them turn on or off as required to enhance performance. Whilst we have also heard that genetic manipulation of athletes is unlikely to be attempted before 2012, (for example, Dr Wackerhage of the University of Aberdeen told us that such use is unlikely because "it is technically difficult and the type of desired and side effects are unclear"[179]), there have already been reports of use of gene therapy in this fashion. For example, Repoxygen is the tradename for a type of gene therapy which induces controlled release of EPO in response to low oxygen concentration in mice. Developed to treat anaemia, Repoxygen is still in preclinical development and has not been extensively tested in humans. However, despite being prohibited both in and out of competition under the WADA Code 2006 Prohibited List, interest in Repoxygen is currently suspected.[180]

103. We were interested to establish what is being done to identify new performance enhancing drugs. However, John Scott told us that UK Sport were not "directly doing any work" and their research "priority" has been on social research,[181] used to get a better understanding of the 'mind-set' of athletes and hence when they might use prohibited substances, rather than what may be available. Mr Matthew Reader from DCMS put the onus on WADA, explaining that it has a "fairly considerable" research budget and that it commissions research around the world. He commented that WADA is "uniquely placed to co-ordinate" since this is one of many issues which has application across the world.[182] We find the attitude of DCMS and UK Sport somewhat complacent, and are concerned that UK Sport does not conduct research into current or future, potentially prohibited, HETs. We also consider that there is a need for increased research into the detection of current and potential illegal substances, including gene doping, and that such research must take place well in advance of the London 2012 Olympics to enable us to be ahead of, or at least on a par with, the cheats. We recommend that DCMS and UK Sport develop a funding stream to support research into potentially prohibited substances and methods for their detection. We recommend that funds be made available for this work well in advance of the London 2012 Olympics.

Alternative methods for catching the cheats

104. As discussed in Chapter 4, WADA supports scientific research into the detection of doping in its various forms and it is clear that some mechanisms for cheating (for example, with testosterone) are detectable through the WADA-accredited laboratory testing system.[183] However, as we have seen above, some HETs remain very difficult or impossible to detect. Since not all methods for doping are currently detectable, the development of the doping, or athlete's, 'passport' has been suggested. The idea behind this suggestion is that athletes would be requested to give blood and urine samples at set points at the start of and during their career in sport. These samples would be tested and analysed, for example for natural variation in hormone levels (such as natural levels of EPO) and markers of normal blood physiology (such as haemoglobin, the part of red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen). The passport would then be used to measure variation in these levels and thus enable easier tracking of substance abuse. During the course of this inquiry, we have heard strong support for the development of a doping passport. Professor McGrath referred to what he considers the "big case" for an athlete's passport. He also felt that monitoring athletes in this way might enable detection later on when a particular method of doping is not yet detectable.[184] Dr Budgett of the BOA argued that not only is it a "good idea" but that resources put into the development of a doping passport would be effective and that the UK should show a lead because "it would be one extra way of making sure our athletes truly are clean".[185] On the other hand, while John Scott from UK Sport also felt that it would be useful to have a doping passport,[186] he believed that the scheme "requires international partnership" since there is little point in it being applied to just one group of athletes.[187]

105. We believe that a 'passport' used to record an athlete's physiological profile over set time points during their career would be of use in the fight against doping. Not only might such a scheme offer increased potential for detection of doping, but it could act as a deterrent to those athletes contemplating doing so. However, for such a passport to be effective, it would be necessary for anti-doping authorities to have a clear, continually developing understanding of normal physiology (for example, of the blood) and the effects of HETs upon it. There may therefore be a need for increased research into normal physiological characteristics to enable detection of when doping has occurred. We recommend that the UK pilot the development of a doping passport and that government funds be made available for development of this scheme. To support this, we recommend that funding be given for research into normal physiology and changes in physiological characteristics after doping with illegal substances.

168   Ev 58 Back

169   Q 185 Back

170   Q 125 Back

171   "This Is Very Clever Chemistry", Washington Post, 4 December 2004, Back

172   Ev 58 Back

173   Ev 59 Back

174   Q 165 Back

175   Q 230 Back

176   Ev 59 Back

177   As above Back

178   WADA publication, 'Play True', Issue 1, 2005, pages 3-6.  Back

179   Ev 72 Back

180   "Apocalypse now: fears of gene doping are realised", The Times, 2 February 2006,,,4-2020875,00.html Back

181   Q 31 Back

182   As above Back

183   Testosterone, epitestosterone and the doping tests, Cycling News, 31 July 2006, Back

184   Q 193  Back

185   Q 304 Back

186   Q 73-79 Back

187   Q 83 Back

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Prepared 22 February 2007