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The Sugar High Jump

• June 18, 2008 • 11:52 PM

The results of a new study point to placebos as the perfect performance-enhancing drug: Athletes performed better on a high-jump test after unknowingly ‘doping’ with sugar pills.

With summer comes sporting festivals and their attendant commerce. Besides July’s Tour de France tchotchke caravan and sponsorship mega deals during the August Olympics in Beijing, spectators will see the end result of millions of dollars’ worth of transactions made to facilitate doping.

The big money goes to illicit doping experts, such as those exposed in California’s BALCO case and Spain’s Operación Puerto police raid against a lab run by doping Svengali Eufemiano Fuentes. Their high fees came from a reputation earned helping athletes produce results while evading anti-doping tests.

Today’s favored doping products and treatments have been created in a biotech revolution in legitimate hormonal therapies, which supercharge ordinary physical processes, such as muscle growth and oxygen-carrying red-blood-cell production.

In other words, for what will surely be another summer of televised, hormonological cheating, some blame will drift toward endocrinologists. They’re the experts in the body’s hormonal system who’ve helped develop the modern era’s high-performance doping products.

It was a surprise, therefore, to see scientists at this week’s annual meeting of The Endocrine Society assuming a defensive posture. In words and deeds, they seemed truly concerned that their profession has been tainted by recent public attention paid to steroids in baseball and hormone doping in Olympic sports.

The society held a press conference Tuesday where scientists at once declared the profession’s opposition to steroid abuse, while arguing the social benefit of proper use of testosterone to rejuvinate older men.

A team from Australia presented results of a study that could erase some of the athletic mystique surrounding synthetic human growth hormone, a drug popular among Olympic cheats.

Another Australian group produced research designed to help doping tests more effectively catch hormone abuse.

These efforts won’t undo the effect of illicit use of new hormone treatments by cheating athletes. But it’s clear from such presentations that the field would like to be seen on the side of anti-doping cops and against the sporting cheats who exploit their work.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics were dubbed the HGH Olympics after an Australian customs raid showed Chinese swim team members had synthetic growth hormone in their luggage.

Eight years later, science has produced zero evidence that it might help swimmers — not to mention weight lifters, cyclists and myriad other athletes for whom synthetic human growth hormone forms part of a performance-enhancing drug regimen.

A research team at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney this week produced results from a study suggesting these athletes might get similar results with sugar pills.

The team that included professor Ken Ho, director of the Pituitary Research Unit at Garvan, told 64 recreational athletes they were in a growth hormone study but randomly gave some participants a placebo. (According to Ho, the study did not test professional athletes, given the attention they might have drawn from doping testers.) Athletes in the placebo group who believed they were receiving hormone treatments performed better in a high-jump test after the bogus treatment, Ho says.

Given the high prices athletes are willing to pay for improving performance while passing drug tests, the Garvan team may have developed the ideal doping regimen: placebo sugar pills.

“I’m taking out a patent,” Ho joked during a presentation at this week’s meeting in San Francisco.

A more likely effect might be to help convince some athletes that human growth hormone’s perceived performance effects are all in the mind. Perhaps some competitors might even be dissuaded from injecting themselves with the stuff for the upcoming Olympics in Beijing.

Even more effective might be to actually catch those attempting to cheat with synthetic growth hormone in their system. Anne Nelson, manager of the Growth Hormone Doping Project at Garvan, presented a type of doping test that identifies the presence of synthetic growth hormone by measuring changes to natural forms of growth hormone in the blood.

In the past, synthetic growth hormone doping has been all but undetectable — except in customs raids — because the drug has been indistinguishable from the growth hormone the body makes naturally.

It turns out, however, that after someone takes growth hormone, there is a change in the body’s ratio of the different strains of natural growth hormone, which are called isoforms. The scientists injected volunteers with growth hormone and observed a rapid change in this ratio, suggesting the possibility of nabbing heretofore undetected dopers.

It’s possible the new test could be finessed by sophisticated athletes, however. According to Nelson, this change in the isoform ratio only lasts around 36 hours. And sporting lore about growth hormone’s supposed effects says the drug’s benefits last longer than a day and a half.

As if helping debunk and police growth hormone doping wasn’t sufficient to place endocrinologists on the side of fair play, scientists also held a press conference making excuses for, and declaring umbrage at, how medical research is exploited in competitive sports.

Farid Saad, of the Berlin-based Bayer Schering Pharma, described his research showing testosterone supplements can rejuvinate older men. Low testosterone, caused by under-performing gonads, is linked to risk of heart disease, stroke and other health problems that include depression and slack libido. Saad says his research shows that testosterone treatments made men thinner and lowered their cholesterol.

But when it comes to vital, young athletes, administering hormones to win the Tour de France, say, or grow facial hair on female swimmers, endocrinologists say they are against it. The society “supports policies that prevent the illegal and non-medical uses of these drugs,” the new statement said.

One answer, the statement said, is for national governments to increase funding to better understand the body’s production of hormones so drug testers can better identify dopers by detecting subtle changes in the endocrine system.

If history has any lessons, such research may also help instruct illicit doping experts as they guide their athlete clients through an ever-thicker maze of doping regulations. And endocrinologists will again feel compelled to defend their good name.

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Matt Smith

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