Drugs testing is only a band-aid

14 February 2012

Professor Dr. Dr. Perikles Simon has caused a stir with his method for detecting gene doping: He and his colleagues have succeeded in doing what was previously thought impossible. When it comes to headlines, this kind of research is exactly what the media love. However, in an interview, the head of the Sports Medicine, Prevention and Rehabilitation Division at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) tends to take a rather different view.

"We basically wanted to show that we can really prove anything if we want to." Fair enough, but when it comes to drug testing, Professor Simon is far less sanguine. "I think it is quite possible that 60 percent of athletes are using drugs in the world of professional sports," he claims. Professional sport, in particular, is a significant economic factor, generating a least US-$ 200 billion annually. "This means the investment of six million in the development of new detection methods is like a drop in the ocean. At present, we are spending something like US-$ 350 million on drug testing only to come up with nothing. While it is true that this is a large amount, it is still little more than a band-aid on the gaping wound that is this problem."

The sports medicine specialist has just returned from a trip abroad and a lot of things have accumulated on his desk. "I still have to go through this," he says, apologizing for the mess. A red bicycle leans against the wall; a bright yellow exercise ball sits beside it under an Olympics poster. Simon, born in 1973, was a track and field athlete himself before earning his doctorate first in medicine and then in neuroscience. He came to Mainz in 2009 to become head of the Sports Medicine, Prevention and Rehabilitation Division.

Use of drugs by young athletes and in the gym

"What is much more important is that we take care of young athletes," he continues. "People like Jan Ullrich don't start using drugs only once they become adults. The use of steroids by youngsters, in particular, is something that we do not adequately monitor. Parents usually do not suspect anything and the kids do not know exactly what they are taking." Simon sees a similar problem in gyms. "About 20 percent of males who go to gyms take performance-enhancing substances. And let's not fool ourselves: The professionals generally know what they are doing and have specialists on hand to advise them." However, amateurs often have little idea of what these substances can do and are ruining their health. "This problem is affecting millions of people."

Simon is not primarily interested in catching drug-taking professional athletes; he wants to have a broad impact: "At the end of the day, it is public health that is our concern."

Detecting exogenous genes

This also applies to techniques for detecting gene doping. It is quite possible to detect the presence of exogenous genetic material introduced with the aim of enhancing performance by means of blood tests. "From the scientific point of view, however, what is much more interesting for us is the whole aspect of free genetic material in blood." The presence of DNA in blood is not something that would normally be expected because this substance does its work within cells. But it is there, and Simon can determine precisely what kind of genetic material it is. For example, it could come from genetically-modified foods - one area of application that has, as yet, not been sufficiently explored.

"We can also detect DNA that has been modified by cancer." Medical researchers have been studying the effects of sport on cancer patients. "We have found that physical exercise leads to higher levels of genetic material in blood. But what does this mean? Is this something that is a threat to patients, or does it enhance the immune reaction?"

What exercise is appropriate?

When it comes to the aspect of exercise, Simon does not restrict himself to cancer patients. "Thanks to our understanding of exercise physiology, we can explain what kind of exercise is best for what kind of person better than any other discipline." This means that everyone benefits. "In the past, we used to believe that anybody could be a top performer - they just needed to want it badly enough." But over an individual's lifetime, their level of performance tends to remain relatively constant. At one end of the scale are top athletes who can get up to speeds of nearly 20 kilometers per hour, while at the other are those who can't even manage 4 kilometers per hour. "A high level of physical performance is expected of people like nurses, teachers and shift workers." This can be a problem for those who are not so fit. "It leads to things like burn-out." Therefore, the rhythm of the individual needs to be taken into account.

Sports medicine is not an unnecessary extravagance

Now Simon turns his attention to public health. In comparison with a country like the USA, the aspects of prevention and health awareness are not yet as prominent in Germany. "Pharmaceutical companies have little interest in promoting such awareness; all they want to do is sell more drugs. This means that it is down to the state to do something - they could, for example, introduce the subject of health education in schools." Simon sees the opportunity to save billions by means of the implementation of changes of this nature.

"It is public health that is really at the focus of what sports medicine specialists do," he states. "No one else has such precise knowledge of what makes the body tick properly. I used to think that sports medicine was a bit of an unnecessary extravagance, but actually, that's not the case. We are there to help everybody. We need to make it clear to people that it is our job is to promote their fitness - and we won't necessarily expect them to put on running shorts for this purpose!"