Marathon Mice

These are dark days for juicers. Jason Grimsley's pitching career is over, but his stint as a big-time defendant has just begun. David Segui might be the first of a boatload of names to go from redacted to fingered in a federal HGH probe. George Mitchell is rattling cages all around Major League Baseball.

Yet, these might be even darker days for the anti-dopers. To them, the Grimsley affair signals the continuation of a seemingly endless cycle of futility. No sooner do leagues toughen their substance-abuse policies than they're rendered laughable by Texas-sized loopholes. No sooner do the leagues' testing labs figure out how to unmask a hot designer steroid than rogue labs switch to the production of a new, more undetectable substance.

Even Dr. Gary Wadler, a prominent anti-doping activist, sounds like a man with futility fatigue.

Kurt Snibbe for"We are swimming against the current in many ways," says Wadler, a New York sports-medicine physician and adviser to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). He doubts baseball's new anti-drug policies are driving out steroids, for example, because HGH allows players to scale back their usage.

"It's poly-pharmacy," he says. "They're taking lower doses of steroids to get them under the radar, combined with HGH."

To Wadler, HGH is also a harbinger of increasingly sophisticated, decreasingly detectable performance enhancers in sports, which pose even thornier problems than steroids. Not only are they harder to police, but they're even easier to get -- a diversion of prescription drugs and scientific advances for illegitimate purposes. HGH has long been perfectly legal for growth-challenged children and pituitary-deficient adults. In the past year, the FDA has approved two new drugs for children with deficient "insulin-like growth factor" (IGF-1). That's great news for parents of children who aren't growing, and also for juicers who see such IGF-1 boosters as the next big thing.

And the ultimate in performance enhancement and detection evasion might be just over the horizon: genetic engineering.

The frontier for that kind of doping isn't at shady labs like BALCO, but at prestigious ones such as the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. Through genetic engineering, its scientists have developed super-rodents they call "marathon mice" who can run twice as far as regular mice. Since announcing this development in 2004, project leader Dr. Ronald Evans has been bombarded by letters and e-mails from everyone from horse trainers to athletes to athletes' parents. According to Evans, they all ask the same question: Can we get some of what you have?

The Salk lab's work is meant to help people with diabetes and heart disease, not elite athletes with trophy lust. But its researchers now understand all too well the anything-for-an-edge sports world -- as do those at the University of Pennsylvania, who've developed super-strong "Schwarzenegger mice" and also are hounded by performance-enhancer junkies. "Athletes are risk-takers," says Evans. "They'll do something like this even though they don't know what it is or whether it's safe."

As a practical matter, Salk's development of these "mighty mouses" is probably years from being applicable to humans. But according to Evans, "It literally could be done now. It wouldn't be easy, but it could be done."

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