Wed | Mar 20, 2019

Not so fast Hubert!

Published:Tuesday | May 26, 2015 | 12:00 AMDr Paul Wright

The secret of good medicine is an informed patient. Therefore, the Internet has its purpose in assisting patients to better understand their complaints, and thus comply more readily with the instructions and prescriptions of the attending physician after consultations.

In fact, some doctors will suggest websites to patients where more information can be obtained regarding a medical diagnosis. The problem with the use of the Internet begins when patients surf the net, read up on a condition and then proceed to spout medical information as if they are now authorities on a particular subject.

The article in this newspaper last week by respected international track and field guru, Hubert Lawrence, is a case in point.

Lawrence has launched an interesting defence of Justin Gatlin, the American sprinter who has tested positive for banned substances more than once. The basis of Lawrence's defence is a critique of a 2013 University of Oslo study that concluded that there are substances ingested by athletes that can boost performance for years.

The study in Oslo was to investigate the long-talked-about muscle memory when it comes to strength training.

Athletes and coaches have noticed for some time now that it seems to be easier for anyone who has done strength training in the past to regain that strength more quickly when compared to an athlete lifting weights from scratch.

For example, any athlete who can dead lift 500 pounds and stopped training for a year or more, that athlete can regain that ability much quicker than someone who has never lifted before. The belief was that having lifted before, the body retained some memory of how to do so.

The research scientists in Oslo focused on the fact that unlike most other cells in the body, muscle cells have multiple nuclei. When muscle mass increases, as in weight training, the number of nuclei also increases. But we know that there are other ways to increase muscle mass, e.g. taking steroids.

The researchers fed mice with testosterone for 14 days and found that there was a 77 per cent increase in muscle mass and a 66 per cent increase in nuclei in the muscles. The treatment with testosterone was stopped and, in three weeks, the testosterone-treated mice returned to the same size

as their non-treated control counterparts.

The researchers found that the number of nuclei remained elevated in the mice that had been given steroids for as long as three months.

These mice have a life span of 21/2 years. When the treated mice were put on an exercise programme, their muscle mass increased very quickly - 31 per cent in just six days - while the untreated mice that were similarly exercised did not have any significant change in their muscle mass. The nuclei gains in the treated mice lasted for 10 per cent of the animal's life span.

That means that if short-term doping could change the make-up of muscle in the way that this study suggests, the effects of doping in humans could last much longer than a four-year ban.

This is an example of an epigenetic change, which is an environmental factor that causes an organism's genome to express itself in a different way.

There are indeed other research studies that show that the use of drugs such as growth hormone and insulin growth factor also leads to epigenetic effects. Some scientists now believe that even though the effect of doping substances in the body is mostly transient, epigenetic consequences might be persistent.


cooperation needed


Athletes will always be one step ahead of anti-doping organisations, but with the cooperation of researchers, sports-medicine practitioners, athletes, coaches, and media experts, the fight against doping in sports can be restricted to a few cheaters who will be caught eventually, as we have seen in icons who have never failed a drug test being unmasked and disgraced.

The allegation that surfaced last week that the winner of the 100-metre race at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and other members of the relay team were doped by the team physician will result in confirming the view of an increasing number of fans that not all icons of sport are clean.

The acceptance of cheaters back on the circuit after serving time has caused more and more fans to start insisting that dopers are banned for life, as the phenomenon of epigenetic change is understood not only by scientists and anti-doping experts, but now by the fans of sports.