The World Anti-Doping Agency is storing suspicious readings of a substance used in clinical drug trials in the run-up to the London Olympics after police seized vials in a sports doctor’s luggage.
Athlete urine samples with elevated levels of a metabolism modulator, AICAR, are being frozen pending validation of a test for the substance, WADA Science Director Olivier Rabin said. A 2008 study found AICAR, made in synthetic form by companies including New York-based Enzo Biochem Inc., helped boost stamina in sedentary mice by 44 percent.
Doctor Alberto Beltran was arrested in March, with Barcelona police saying in a statement that they were breaking up a doping ring because of the proximity to the Olympics. Beltran denies wrongdoing, his lawyer Matias Palomo said. Athlete samples can be stored and re-tested for eight years under anti-doping rules.
“We’re not blind and deaf: we can see what has been seized,” Rabin said from Montreal. Storing and re-testing samples “is part of our arsenal.”
He declined to say how many samples had been stored. The mice research has helped AICAR attain “mythical” status among athletes, according to the study’s author Ronald Evans, a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. He said he has been contacted by about 100 athletes seeking more information.
The research found untrained rodents that were fed synthetic AICAR over four weeks ran 44 percent longer on a treadmill than untreated rodents. Salk Institute published a news release headlined “exercise in a pill,” which was picked up by media including the New York Times. WADA added AICAR to its banned substance list the following year.
While no tests have been done on athletes to show an uptick in stamina with synthetic AICAR, Evans said he has gotten e-mails and letter inquiring about its effects. Some athletes attended his seminars to ask questions.
There’s “a secret society of athletes that are willing to cheat,” Evans said by telephone. “My experience is that they are willing to try anything.”
Beltran, a Colombian based in Bahrain, was arrested at Madrid airport with AICAR in his luggage, the March 19 police statement said. A police spokesman who declined to be identified in line with procedure said officers found two vials marked with the Enzo brand name.
Steven Anreder, a spokesman for Enzo Biochem, said the company, which sells a 50 milligram vial for $82 in the U.S., only sells to bona fide research companies. AICAR hasn’t been approved for human consumption and is listed as “harmful” on the company website.
There is no evidence anything Beltran had with him was for doping, Palomo said. The police hypothesis about him leading a doping ring is “totally wrong,” the lawyer said. Palomo said he didn’t have details about what substances police seized, or what they were for.
Beltran is being held in prison as a judge in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat near Barcelona studies whether to charge him and nine other people arrested.
The Olympic Games open July 27. To be sure, the effects of AICAR on athletes’ performance may be negligible, according to Dan Cuthbertson, a professor at the U.K.’s Liverpool University who oversaw a 2007 study that treated “healthy” men with AICAR.
The only effect of AICAR was to “marginally” increase glucose uptake in muscle, Cuthbertson said. For highly-fit Olympic athletes, he said, any effect may be non-existent or require “bucket chemistry.”
“If I was a top athlete and I wanted to abuse something, if I was unethical and daft enough to do so, I wouldn’t use this,” Cuthbertson said. “There is no evidence it will do anything.”
Anti-doping scientists won’t drop their guard, according to Mario Thevis, an investigator at the German Sports University in Cologne who has tested for AICAR.
“The fact is the temptation remains,” Thevis said. “Even if there is a 1 or 2 percent improvement in performance that could be the difference between first and second place.”