Even some Olympic athletes cheat with drugs | Science News for Students

Even some Olympic athletes cheat with drugs

As new ways of doping emerge, scientists develop ways to catch the cheaters
Aug 15, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
hurdles track

Athletes train to get stronger, run faster and jump higher. But some may turn to an illegal short-cut: performance-enhancing drugs. Scientists are working to find these cheaters.

Jacob Ammentorp Lund/istockphoto

MANCHESTER, England — Keen viewers of the Rio Olympics this week may notice that one country’s team is a lot smaller than usual. Russia brought only about 70 percent of the athletes it had expected would compete. Some 30 percent — including all weightlifters and all but one track and field athletes — were banned from the competition. The reason? They were caught up in a cheating scandal.

The type of cheating these athletes had participated in is known as “doping.” It involves the use of drugs to improve performance. These drugs have medical purposes for people who are ill. But in healthy athletes, they can provide an illegal advantage by boosting muscle growth or offering other benefits.

starting block race
Most athletes don’t cheat through doping. But those who do, and are caught, face serious consequences. They can be banned from their sport. And their past wins may be erased.
Jacob Ammentorp Lund/istockphoto

And it’s not just using these substances that can get an athlete in trouble. Athletes also can get banned for refusing to participate in (or tampering with) efforts to find others who use doping drugs. The Russian scandal involved an elaborate plot to interfere with these tests.

But as people have developed new ways to dope, so have scientists worked on ways to find them.

Malene Lindholm studies how genes affect people’s athletic abilities. A scientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, she spoke here on July 26 at the EuroScience Open Forum. “Doping is a constant battle,” she warns, “especially in elite sports.”

A long history of doping in sports

Athletes have been trying to improve their performance with various substances since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. That’s more than 2,000 years ago. Back then, athletes took substances such as strychnine (STRIK-nyne), a poison, to run faster and fight better.

The modern era of doping, though, began in the middle of the 20th century. That’s when some athletes began taking drugs called amphetamines (Am-FET-uh-meens). Soldiers in World War II took such drugs to overcome fatigue. They seemed to help athletes, too.

During that time, athletes also began taking anabolic steroids. These drugs mimic the human hormone testosterone (Tes-TOS-tur-ohn). In medicine, these drugs can offer useful benefits, such as stimulating appetite or regaining lost muscle. But healthy athletes figured out that they could also use the drugs to get bigger and stronger.

Such drug use can have deadly consequences, though. On August 26, 1960, Danish cyclist Knud Jensen died while competing at the Olympics in Rome, Italy. During his team’s 100-kilometer (62-mile) time-trial race, he collapsed. During the fall he hit his head, fracturing his skull. An autopsy found traces of an amphetamine in his blood.

Afterward, Olympic officials began regularly testing athletes for banned drugs. That didn’t stop people from doping. It did, however, make it a lot harder for them to get away with it. As new drugs and ways of doping emerged, officials banned these, too. And with each new development, scientists have figured out ways to scout out signs that an athlete has used these doping substances.

olympic cyclists
Cyclists participating in the 2012 Olympics in London, England. Scientists have retested blood samples taken from athletes in the London games and found that some athletes who originally tested “clean” of drugs actually had been doping.

Arne Ljungqvist is a researcher in medicine and sports. He has spent decades on antidoping studies and today heads a private antidoping group in Sweden. Ljungqvist sees this work as a personal quest to keep Olympians honest. A former Olympian, he was a high jumper in the 1952 games in Helsinki, Finland. “Science has been used for the purpose of combating the evil of doping in sport,” he says. “And it seems in vain. But I can tell you it’s harder now than it used to be” to dope in sports.

Antidoping officials can even catch people who doped years ago. Because blood samples are kept for years after an athlete competes, scientists can go back and test them when new methods emerge. Within the last year, for instance, officials went back and tested samples from the last two summer Olympics. These were the 2012 games in London, England, and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. The new tests turned up evidence of doping among some athletes who originally had been deemed  “clean” of drugs. Those athletes are now being disciplined. Some have had had to return their medals.

New methods of doping

At this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, antidoping efforts have already caught three athletes. Their blood tests revealed that they had used banned or controlled substances. These athletes have now been expelled or suspended from this year’s games.

But testing will not end when the 2016 games do. Some of the athletes’ blood samples will be held for testing later. Scientists will be looking for signs of a new type of cheating: gene doping.

Scientists don’t yet have evidence that athletes are gene doping. But they have a test for the method that they plan to try out.

Carl Johan Sundberg studies human genetics and physical activity at the Karolinska Institute. “Gene doping mimics, or basically copies, what is done with gene therapy,” he explains. It starts with a vector. This is the term biologists give to something that serves as a carrier. It could carry a disease or even something as small as a gene. In gene therapy, scientists typically use a virus as a vector to insert a gene into a patient. This is usually done to treat a genetic disease.

But researchers suspect that some unethical scientists may be helping athletes cheat. Those scientists may be using the new technology to insert genes that could give those athletes a competitive advantage in their sport.

“We do not know whether it has been conducted or not,” Sundberg says of gene doping. But scientists in Australia figured out a way to detect if an athlete is gene doping. So now officials are hoping to use that test on an Olympian’s blood in the near future.

They’ll be looking for signs of a gene inserted to help the body make more of a protein called EPO. It’s short for erythropoietin (Eh-REETH-roh-POY-eh-tun). This is the substance that famed Tours de France winner Lance Armstrong was caught using before he was banned from the sport of cycling (and stripped of his seven wins). EPO injections will boost the body’s production of red blood cells. That can improve the amount of oxygen that can be delivered to cells. The end result can be an improved fitness and endurance. 

The new test will scan for two things. One is the virus used to ferry the EPO gene into an athlete’s body. And the other is the EPO gene itself. A person’s own EPO gene has introns. These are extra bits of DNA that are cut out when a cell translates a gene to make the EPO protein. But an inserted gene would likely lack those introns. So their absence could signal gene doping.

female swimmers
Using the butterfly stroke is not the fastest or most natural way to swim in the pool. But rules that require its use for some events are one of the things that turn swimming from an activity into a sport.

Doping is frowned upon because it is cheating. And to Mike McNamee, “It all comes back to the question of why we value sports.”

McNamee studies sports ethics at Swansea University in Wales. To create a sport, “we design rules in order to make simple activities really difficult,” he says. Swimming in a pool isn’t that hard, for instance. But the rules of swimming as a sport limit the kinds of arm movement or kicking style a person can use. Such rules turn the activity into a sport. Using substances to overcome some of those difficulties makes such competitions pointless, he argues.

But doping is also a matter of health and safety. Gene doping also could bring great risks, says Sundberg. Inserting a gene might cause cancer. Or it might trigger a deadly reaction by the body’s immune system. It might even thicken the blood to the point that an athlete risks developing a stroke. “And because you have introduced the material and cannot retract it,” he says, “you’re stuck with it.”

Sundberg worries that other technologies being developed could be used in similar ways, with their own risks. Cell therapy — such as bone marrow or skin transplants — have helped many people. But it could be used for doping purposes, too, in hopes of making muscle or the heart stronger, he says.

Researchers are also developing gene-editing treatments that use a technology called CRISPR-Cas9. It’s still early days in CRISPR studies. Researchers are looking at how to make it safe and effective. But in time, it “may be used in doping as well,” Sundberg says. “This is a bit of science fiction — but not really.”

Doping outside of sports

Athletes aren’t the only people doping. “We face another danger,” worries Ljungqvist: “the use of doping substances by mainly young people.” He argues that “this is a rising public health issue around the world.”

Even people who are not elite athletes may use doping substances as a faster way to get impressive looking muscles.
Milan Markovic/istockphoto

No one knows how many non-athletes are using medicines in this way. It is thought that it is mostly teenage boys “who want to be bigger and stronger — ripped and looking like their favorite Hollywood actor,” says McNamee. “But it’s also policemen, firefighters, security guards, bouncers on the doors.” There may be lots of other groups, as well, that have their own reasons for abusing substances in a way similar to that of elite athletes, he says.

Such doping brings real dangers. Studies and investigations have repeatedly shown that some food-supplement makers have sold products with hidden ingredients. These range from illegal drugs to chemicals that have never been tested in people. And these supplements can make people ill. One study published last year, for instance, found that each year supplements send thousands of people, including many teens, to U.S. hospitals.

Simply outlawing all use of doping substances won’t work, says McNamee. That’s because many of them have valid uses. 

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

amphetamines     Potent drugs that stimulate the brain. They can be used as a medicine to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other types of disease. However, these can be habit forming (somewhat addictive) and in high doses can provide euphoria, delirium and other symptoms similar to cocaine.

autopsy     Examination of body tissues after a person dies, typically performed to determine the cause of death.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

Cas9     An enzyme that geneticists are now using to help edit genes. It can cut through DNA, allowing it to fix broken genes, splice in new ones or disable certain genes. Cas9 is shepherded to the place it is supposed to make cuts by CRISPRs, a type of genetic guides. The Cas9 enzyme came from bacteria. When viruses invade a bacterium, this enzyme can chop up the germs DNA, making it harmless.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye, it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H 2 O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

CRISPR     An abbreviation — pronounced crisper — for the term “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” These are pieces of RNA, an information-carrying molecule. They are copied from the genetic material of viruses that infect bacteria. When a bacterium encounters a virus that it was previously exposed to, it produces an RNA copy of the CRISPR that contains that virus’ genetic information. The RNA then guides an enzyme, called Cas9, to cut up the virus and make it harmless. Scientists are now building their own versions of CRISPR RNAs. These lab-made RNAs guide the enzyme to cut specific genes in other organisms. Scientists use them, like a genetic scissors, to edit — or alter — specific genes so that they can then study how the gene works, repair damage to broken genes, insert new genes or disable harmful ones.

discourse      Discussion or dialog, usually within a large group, such as across society.

doping     (in sports) The use of a banned medicinal substance or method to enhance athletic performance.

erythropoietin     A hormone made in the kidneys that will stimulate the bone marrow to make red blood cells.

ethics     (adj. ethical ) A code of conduct for how people interact with others and their environment. To be ethical, people should treat others fairly, avoid cheating or dishonesty in any form and avoid taking or using more than their fair share of resources (which means, to avoid greed). Ethical behavior also would not put others at risk without alerting people to the dangers beforehand and having them choose to accept the potential risks.

gene     (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for producing a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics . People who work in this field are geneticists.

hormone     (in zoology and medicine) A chemical produced in a gland and then carried in the bloodstream to another part of the body. Hormones control many important body activities, such as growth. Hormones act by triggering or regulating chemical reactions in the body. (in botany) A chemical that serves as a signaling compound that tells cells of a plant when and how to develop, or when to grow old and die.

immune system     The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

inhibit     To slow or prevent something from happening. To provide some resistance to a movement or action.

intron    A section of DNA or RNA that does not carry the blueprints for making some protein.

marrow     (in physiology and medicine) Spongy tissue that develops inside of bones. Most red blood cells, infection-fighting white blood cells and blood platelets all form within the marrow.

muscle     A type of tissue used to produce movement by contracting its cells, known as muscle fibers. Muscle is rich in a protein, which is why predatory species seek prey containing lots of this tissue.

physical     (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are d ue to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).

population     (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

red blood cells     Colored red by hemoglobin, these cells move oxygen from the lungs to all tissues of the body.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.

science fiction     A field of literary or filmed stories that take place against a backdrop of fantasy, usually based on speculations about how science and engineering will direct developments in the distant future. The plots in many of these stories focus on space travel, exaggerated changes attributed to evolution or life in (or on) alien worlds.

skull     The skeleton of a person’s or animal’s head.

society     An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.

stroke     (in biology and medicine) A condition where blood stops flowing to part of the brain or leaks in the brain.

strychnine      A bitter, colorless crystalline toxin, initially derived from seeds of an Asian tree (Strychnos nux-vomica). It gained renown in the early 20th century as a poison to kill birds and rats.

supplement     (verb) To add to something. (in nutrition) Something taken in pill or liquid form — often a vitamin or mineral — to improve the diet. For instance, it may provide more of some nutrient that is believed to benefit health.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

testosterone     Although known as a male sex hormone, females make this reproductive hormone as well (generally in smaller quantities). It gets its name from a combination of testis (the primary organ that makes it in males) and sterol, a term for some hormones. High concentrations of this hormone contribute to the greater size, musculature and aggressiveness typical of the males in many species (including humans).

transplant     (in medicine) The replacement of a tissue or an organ with that from another organism. It is also a term for the material that will be transplanted.

vector     (in medicine) An organism that can spread disease, such as by transmitting a germ from one host to another.

virus     Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.

Wales     One of the three components of Great Britain (the other two being England and Scotland. It’s also part of the United Kingdom (whose other members include England, Scotland and Northern Ireland).


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Meeting: H. Geyer et al. Doping in elite sports and beyond. EuroScience Open Forum 2016. July 26, 2016. Manchester, England.