Other groups are more public about their progress. Acceleron, a company based in Cambridge, MA, that is developing a myostatin inhibitor, says that it has already developed a test for research purposes that is capable of detecting the drug in blood. And scientists at the Center for Preventive Doping Research, German Sport University Cologne, are working on a test for SARMs.
Fortunately, scientists say that detecting abuse of these two new classes of drugs is likely to be easier than detecting two doping agents that have plagued the sports world in recent years. Erythropoietin, which stimulates growth of red blood cells and is used to treat anemia patients, is processed quickly by the body, making it difficult to detect.Human growth hormone, which boosts cell growth, is a naturally occurring hormone. Tests must be able to discriminate between the natural hormone and the pharmaceutically derived version. “People who are trying to cheat like to use a steroid naturally present in the body, because it makes it much more difficult for labs to detect,” says Don Catlin, founder of Anti-Doping Research, a nonprofit research institute based in Los Angeles.
Myostatin inhibitors present a particularly interesting case for WADA. In 2004, scientists published a paper describing an abnormally muscular German toddler who carried mutations in both copies of his myostatin gene. The boy’s mother, who had been a professional athlete, was found to have one defective copy of the gene, raising questions about how to deal with athletes who have naturally occurring genetic mutations that give them benefits similar to those offered by performance-enhancing drugs. “We have ethicists thinking about those issues and guiding us in the future,” says Rabin. “We need to maintain fair play for all competitors.” The issue is likely to grow as advances in genomics allow scientists to uncover additional variants linked to muscle, or other factors related to athletic ability.