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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 05:22 GMT
New drugs give cheats the edge
Generic, BBC
By BBC 5Live's Matt McGrath and Gaetan Portal

While thousands of athletes will face dope tests at the forthcoming Winter Olympics, senior scientists are concerned that powerful new drugs are making a mockery of efforts to clean up sport.

Of course... 'Nesp' is being used. Everybody knows it

Former professional cycling trainer
A BBC 5Live investigation has found evidence that these new drugs, some of them developed to treat cancer and kidney disease, are being abused by athletes to enhance their performances.

Chief among them is a drug called Aranesp.

Developed by one of the world's leading biotech firms, Amgen, the drug has been hailed as a breakthrough in the treatment of anaemia brought on by cancer or kidney failure.

But according to Dr Bengt Saltin, a leading expert on doping, the active molecule in Aranesp is "10 times more powerful" than erythropoietin, or EPO, the current drug of choice for cheaters in sport.

Relentless advance

He says this new drug is cheaper and easier to get hold of than EPO. Worst of all, he says, the chances of it being detected by current tests are "minimal".

Urine, BBC
Detection always seems several steps behind
His view is shared by Dr Michael Turner, a former medical officer for the British Olympic Association, who now works for the Lawn Tennis Association and the Jockey Club in the UK.

He says that it is "inevitable" that Aranesp will be used by the determined cheat in endurance-based sports.

He says: "The situation is that pharmaceutical companies are making new products all the time. You then take that and put it into a perfectly fit and healthy individual and it has a number of effects it was not designed for."

Detection problem

When it comes to the use of doping products, no sport has more experience than professional cycling. It is often seen as the test bed for new drugs. And Aranesp is no exception.

Active substance: Darbepoetin alfa
Boosts red blood cell production in patients suffering from anaemia to improve their body function
Its effects are longer-lasting than EPO; patients require fewer injections
Athletes taking Aranesp carry more oxygen in their blood
This delays the onset of fatigue, allowing them to run harder and for longer
The drug first came to light in last year's Giro D'Italia cycling race. A police raid uncovered a number of substances, including Aranesp, in the rooms of leading cyclists

Cyclists have told the BBC that the use of Aranesp is now well established in the peloton. In last October's Tour of Spain, up to 15 riders are believed to have been on it.

Former professional trainer Antoine Vayer says: "Of course Aranesp, or 'Nesp' (as the cyclists call it), is being used. Everybody knows it. It is a new drug; you can buy it now but in the (doping) control you cannot detect it."

Without prescription

Despite the fact that it is a prescription-only medicine, Aranesp can be easily purchased on the internet. Five hundred dollars will buy you a month's supply. No questions asked.

A spokesman for Amgen said it was amazed that its product was being abused in this way. "We've had no direct reports of this happening but we can't stop people misusing what is an important clinical medicine."

However, the Amgen spokesman condemned athletes who abused drugs in this way.

"The reason this company was put together was to improve human life - not to enhance performance."

And Aranesp is only the first of many new drugs that are set to give cheats the advantage for years to come. Dozens of new blood-boosting drugs are being tested by biotech companies all over the world.

In Russia a product called Perftoran has been licensed for medical use. Its effects allow the blood to carry 20% more oxygen than normal blood, though there are a number of serious side effects. It is available without prescription in many Moscow pharmacies.

The BBC's Matt McGrath
"The easiest place to get (these drugs)... is the good old internet"
Blood doping expert Dr Mike Ashenden
"The product is designed for a clinical use"
Dr David Armstrong, author of Drugs in Sport
"It's a case of the testers trying to catch up with the cheats"
See also:

08 Aug 01 | World Athletics
EPO explained
07 Nov 01 | Drugs in Sport
IOC rejects new test
28 Jan 02 | Front Page
IOC prepares for fight against drugs
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