Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More Op-Ed: Doping

Joe Camp left a comment on my post from a few days ago about the recent doping allegations made against Alberto Contador.  Joe's comment was well thought out and very detailed.  Since I completely agree with his take on the US media coverage of doing in cycling and also find the science very interesting, I e-mailed him and asked if he'd like to expand on his thoughts by writing a guest blog post.
Joe lives in Chicago and has worked in pharma-related field for the last 10+ yrs, first doing bench research and then later moving over to the business side of drug development.  He started doing triathlons in 2007 and recently, through some fairly random luck (as he put it), found himself competing at the Age Group Sprint World Championships in Budapest.  He also wanted to point out that he did not win.

The below is 100% Joe's writing (like I really know what Clenbuterol is anyway), so the opinions expressed are his own.
A couple days ago Patrick posted his thoughts on the recent round of doping announcements – the most notable being Alberto Contador’s positive test for Clenbuterol and his subsequent “bad meat” explanation.  I’m no Contador apologist – that little pistol gesture he makes is pretty childish and he certainly seems to lack a bit when it comes to social grace.  But he’s a transcendent bike rider and the work he put into improving his TT’ing is admirable and made him the champion he is.  So when I heard of this recent positive test bringing down yet another tour winner -- a race that had me riveted for three whole weeks (I was rooting for Schleck) -- I wanted a better explanation than what I was getting from the typical news sources. 
I posted a comment to Patrick’s post expressing my skepticism.  Patrick liked what I had to say and asked me to expand on the idea.  A couple disclaimers first – I do not have a PhD and this is not my life’s work.  I have a degree in biology and I spent 2.5 years working in a pharmacology lab measuring drug concentrations via HPLC as part of drug interaction studies we had underway.  HPLC is the most common way to measure the amount of substance in someone’s blood or urine and I’m sure that a significant portion of the testing WADA does utilizes this technique.
The majority of what has been reported on this case involves UCI’s accusation and Contador’s response and other people’s opinion on the subject.  But I would like to focus attention on the actual numbers reported in the release – namely the 50 picograms/ml of Clenbuterol that was found in his urine(1).  It frustrates me that they report that number without providing any context whatsoever.  That is a barely comprehensible amount of any substance to be found.  It is totally and completely negligible under any other circumstance.  Some context:
-A small paper clip weighs about a gram.  One teaspoon is about 5 mls.
-There are one trillion (a million millions) picograms in one gram.  So in the case of AC – he had 50 trillionths of a gram of this substance in less than a teaspoon of his urine.  This is definitely below the threshold at which he would gain any therapeutic/performance enhancing value from it.
-Not once in our lab we were ever able to detect anything to the level of picogram/ml.  We were ecstatic if we detected anything at a level of nanograms (a billionth of a gram)/ml.  We also reported and published our data in numerous peer-reviewed journals.  I bring this up only to say that this level of detection was universally accepted and that picogram/ml detection was unnecessary.
-Most notably I think – the report even states that the amount was 400 times less than the amount WADA labs are needed to test for (I’ve also seen this number reported as being 40, not 400 times less).  Regardless, the question needs to be asked -- then why were they testing at that level???  Were they looking for controversy???
As I mentioned in my initial response to Patrick’s post -- trace amounts of pharmaceuticals at similar levels to what we’re discussing here have been detected in water supplies in several cities around the world.  Researchers in Wadenswil, Switzerland, found clofibric acid - a widely used cholesterol-lowering drug - at concentrations from 1 to 100 picogram/ml in nearby (post-treatment) lake water (2).  Notice the concentrations are very similar to Contador’s.  Closer to home, at Tulane University, testing showed that fully treated tap water had concentrations of the hormone Estrone averaging 45 parts per trillion with a high of 80 parts per trillion(3).  A quick conversion shows that this is again similar to the levels that Contador had.
My main point is this – if testing is going to be carried out at such minute quantities, then accommodations must be made for environmental factors that could generate a false positive.  We live in a world in which we are exposed to miniscule amounts of all kinds of things we have no interest in using or ingesting.  Some of these things will make their way into our bodies.  We also live in a world of incredible technological advancement.  From what I’ve read, Clenbuterol has been around for decades.  If you give a bunch of scientists 20 years to develop a test, they’ll generate a pretty darn good test.  Then it becomes of a matter of how good of a test is actually needed.  Or more importantly -- how good is actually appropriate when environmental factors are properly considered.
All of us face the possibility of something showing up in our bodies that we did not intend on being there.  The (fortunate) difference between us and Alberto Contador is that most of us will never know what these things are.  In the end I still don’t know if Contador cheated or not.  In this case, though, I think there is enough data to put our prejudices and personal judgments aside and allow for the possibility that he really did eat some funky meat.  I also think there is enough data to demonstrate that UCI and WADA need to do a better job of policing the sport.  Their readiness to accurately and appropriately monitor their own internal testing procedure doesn’t seem to equal to their readiness to accuse and to vilify.


KovasP said...

This is a tough one. Doping has been a part of cycling for a very long time and will continue to be as long as riders continue to skirt the edges of legality, don't get caught and, most importantly, don't get serious consequences for their actions. Want to stop doping in cycling. Automatic lifetime ban for a positive test, regardless of source. Too often "the work he put into improving his TT’ing is admirable and made him the champion he is" turns out to be a simple case of finding a new, better, undetectable drug. I didn't follow the TDF or Vuelta or cycling in general this year. I for one, am over the circus. UCI needs to remove drug restrictions or get serious about policing the peloton.

Big Daddy Diesel said...

I think the issue is that Contador is widely considered a villian when it comes down to it (yes there are a Contador following, but I will say he has way more haters then supporters). The way he "had his own agenda and didnt do what the team plans were 2 years ago" and "attacking Schleck when he dropped his chain" Both of these are very contraversal and both "break the unwritten rules of cycling" Since he already has the "villian" status, this just fueled the fire.

Matty O said...

They need standards. If there are more of something in the urine than the standards allow, done. I agree with a life-long ban. This will definitely stop the doping.

TRI714 said...

great response. Thanks for sharing it Patrick. it puts me even further up on the fence. I'm no advocate of cheating, but where do we draw the line in the sand ? That's where I'm now and have always been confused.

misszippy said...

Like Kovas said, this is a tough one. I can see both sides of the coin. Hopefully there's a future of fairness from both the athletes and the testers.

valen said...

nicely put, totally agree that there is some dodgy protocols around the way the sport is policied.
I can't say I believe the sport is clean, though...


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