The blood-enhancing drug EPO has improved the lives of millions of anemia patients, but Lance Armstrong and other top cyclists have turned the medicine into a byword for doping.
Now, a growing number of pharmaceutical companies are trying to prevent their drugs from the same fate by joining with anti-doping officials to develop tests to detect the illegal use of their drugs among athletes.
Two major drugmakers, Roche and GlaxoSmithKline, have begun evaluating every new drug candidate for its potential to be abused by athletes and have agreed to share information about those products with the World Anti-Doping Agency, known as WADA, which polices drug use in international sports. Several other smaller companies have provided proprietary information about specific drugs. A conference in Paris in November dedicated to the topic drew 250 participants.
The development reflects a significant shift from the days when drugmakers paid little attention to how their products could be abused by athletes, said David Howman, the director general of the anti-doping agency. In the past, drugmakers “felt that any publicity in relation to anti-doping control would be negative,” he said. “But what they discovered is the opposite happened.”
Instead of shying away from such stories, Roche and Glaxo have promoted their involvement as an example of good corporate citizenship. Last year, Glaxo went so far as to sponsor the testing laboratories for the London Games, the first time in Olympic history that an anti-doping laboratory had a named corporate sponsor.
Pauline Williams, who leads the team at Glaxo that runs the anti-doping initiative, said the cooperation with WADA grew out of that sponsorship.
“What the London 2012 involvement led to was a real pride and willingness, and a positive attitude toward this continued engagement,” she said. Since the start of the program, the company said it has shared information about four of its projects, and development of a test for one drug is under way.
Anti-doping officials have long sought information from drug companies. For instance, Amgen, which developed EPO, helped develop a test for Ara- nesp, another of its drugs that has been used in doping, before the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. But such arrangements were ad hoc and fairly simple, said Olivier Rabin, the anti-doping agency’s science director.
“It was almost more by chance when it was happening,” he said.
Anti-doping officials began to work more closely with drugmakers after 2004, when Rabin heard that athletes were talking about a new version of EPO, called CERA, that was being developed by Roche, and asked the company for help.
“We were shocked when they first contacted us,” recalled Barbara Leishman, who oversees the anti-doping program there. She said company scientists had not realized that athletes were following the drug’s development so closely. “This is not the sort of thing we like to hear about our compounds.”
Halting the abuse of new prescription drugs is only part of the anti-doping picture. Athletes today are believed to use a variety of methods to gain an advantage, and some performance-enhancing drugs gain life in illicit laboratories.
Still, pharmaceutical companies have an important role to play given how complex new drugs have become, and how athletes are increasingly using substances that closely mimic the body’s natural processes, officials said.
“Developing detection methods to show that the substance taken in a synthetic form is different than your natural substance is more challenging,” said Matthew Fedoruk, the science director for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.