On the eve of the Olympics, the Times Online ran a story looking at disconcerting trends developing in the doping world. Numero Uno on this list was the offer of 'gene doping' (actually stem cell doping) by a Chinese physician at a Chinese hospital. (sports stem cell doping may be the second best use of the technology)
Startling new evidence of a burgeoning underground doping culture in China emerged last night as a hospital doctor said that he was prepared to give illegal performance-enhancing gene therapy treatment to an Olympic swimmer. The doctor was caught on camera by a German television investigator saying that he wanted £12,000 for a two-week treatment that would help to strengthen the lungs of a fictitious American swimmer.
The opening paragraph refers to gene doping, however the German story develops more aspects of illicit sports doping for 2008:
The documentary, broadcast by ARD on Germany’s main channel last night, went on to show evidence that drugs firms in China are prepared to sell steroids that have not passed full clinical trials, as well as erythropoietin (EPO), the blood-boosting drug, at a price far cheaper than in the West. In the case of one steroid, 100g was sold for €150 (about £120) when the price in Europe would have been more than €6,000.
...With the Olympics beginning in Beijing in a little more than two weeks, the documentary evidence of cheap, on-demand gene therapy alarmed David Howman, the director general of the World AntiDoping Agency (Wada). “This is worse than my worst fears,” he said.
When the head of a hospital gene therapy department in China was approached by a fictitious American swimming coach seeking stem-cell treatment for one of his swimmers, the doctor replied: “Yes. We have no experience with sportspeople here, but the treatment is safe and we can help you.”
That's doctor in whom to entrust confidence: "no experience with sportspeople".
Asked how it would work, the doctor said: “It strengthens lung function and stem cells go into the bloodstream and reach the organs. It takes two weeks. I recommend four intravenous injections . . . 40 million stem cells or double that, the more the better. We also use human growth hormones, but you have to be careful because they are on the doping list.”
And the price? “Twenty-four thousand dollars,” the doctor said.
Ouch, expensive, but then again swimmers spend 100,000 in trainers and coaches. Here is a paragraph from a consensus panel of international experts on the "Molecular basis of connective tissue and muscle injuries in sport "
[Arne Ljungqvist, Martin P. Schwellnus, Norbert Bachl,et al, Clinics in Sports Medicine, 27, Pages 231-239 (Jan 2008)]
Mesenchymal stem cells are adult tissue-producing cells that have been isolated from various parts of the body, including cartilage, bone marrow, synovium, adipose tissue, articular cartilage, muscle, and tendons , , . Potentially, mesenchymal stem cells can be used for tissue-engineering strategies through implantation of scaffolds and gels, for gene delivery, and for production of growth factor to stimulate tissue repair or inhibit tissue degradation , , . Most studies have been conducted in animal models. Some studies of human bone, cartilage, and tendons have produced positive results , , . Further controlled clinical trials in musculoskeletal injuries in humans are warranted, however. Reasons for the lack of progress in this field include the need to find the optimal sources of and methods for the differentiation of cells and for the development of optimal surgical delivery materials and methods , . Although some studies have shown negative effects, including ectopic calcification and connective tissue overgrowth , further clinical trials should be undertaken to determine whether long-term complications exist.
The Chinese doctor appears to have the protocol down a little better than one would think after reading the paragraph above. How did this happen? If practiced would the protocol lead to serious complications or death?
Will the 2008 Olympics be the first to see 'stem cell doping'? (more later)