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An interview with Jason S. Thomas, research chemist
Page 4
By Antoine du Rocher in New York, 8 August 2008

Designer Steroids and Mainstream Professional Sports

Culturekiosque: In view of the demand for designer steroids, how easy is it to recruit qualified chemists to develop cutting edge steroids?

Jason Thomas: There are two types of chemists out there. One that enjoys the pure chemistry of creating a new compound. They see past the fact that it is illegal. The second type would be those looking for monetary gain. After obtaining a Ph.D. in Chemistry, graduates are often funneled into the pharmaceutical industry, which looks for the best of the best. Those that are less gifted might be tempted to work for a steroid laboratory. After all, steroid chemistry is not super-difficult chemistry and the work is lucrative. If you have a lab with a Ph.D. professional, you can staff it with lower level chemists or recent graduates to run the reactions. Similarly, in pharmaceutical labs there are a few senior Ph.D.s and a number of lower level chemists who run the reactions.

CK: Surely Americans, who are very knowledgeable and passionate on the subject of sports, are not naïve to the pervasive use of performance enhancing drugs in sports. However, they react with shock, outrage and disdain when an athlete is charged with their use/abuse. Please comment.

JT: In life, we each need two types of individuals: role models and heroes. Role models are those individuals whose direction we can follow to achieve what they have achieved. The key is, we can reach the level they have attained. And then there are the heroes - those individuals who are superhuman, and their feats and attributes simply cannot be achieved. We do not look to follow their direction; instead, we deify them. There is no disappointment or jealousy in the fact that we cannot aspire to their level; instead, there is a great sense of satisfaction that mankind can reach such unimaginable heights.

The great athletes of our time are not role models. They are heroes. Although our rational mind is aware that such greatness is likely achieved only with the assistance of performance enhancers, the deification process blocks such blasphemy from our conscious mind.

I don't understand why or how the American public pretends to deny or be outraged over the charge of steroid use.

When one of our athletic gods tests positive for enhancers, we are much more than simply deceived. In fact, we are betrayed, as we have ignored our own rational thought and intelligence in our unconditional devotion to our hero. But, more importantly, in our minds the hero becomes nothing more than a man or woman who has artificially propelled themselves to superhuman status. Now, we can become what we have worshipped for so long. Although this would seem like an exciting epiphany, it is not. It simply reminds us of our mundane lives - that we are not surrounded by living gods.

If you are going to see gladiatorial games, little men fighting with sticks won't fill seats. Huge gladiators fighting savage beasts or other huge gladiators will fill seats.

Professional sports must fill seats with fans interested in seeing heroes in their natural element. Thus, every professional sport needs heroes. And these "heroes" need performance enhancing drugs. I don't understand why or how the American public pretends to deny or be outraged over the charge of steroid use.

CK: Chinese labs have been a constant source of performance enhancing drugs for both professional and amateur athletes globally. It seems interesting that the Olympic Games are being hosted by a country where such enhancers are high in quality, cheap in price, and highly accessible.

JT: It would not be appropriate for the International Olympic Committee, IOC, to select or ban any country from hosting the games based solely on that country's status as home to the manufacturers of illegal performance enhancers. These enhancers are simply too prevalent and too easily transported globally.

However, do I think that the athletes who do choose to take performance enhancers will enjoy the availability of labs and apparent lack of regulation while in China? Does a child enjoy an all day VIP pass to Disneyland?

Gene Doping and Genetically Modified Athletes

CK: Earlier this week, an American daily, The Cleveland Leader, reported that a British scientist, Dr. Andy Miah, has warned that Beijing-bound athletes may be injecting themselves with "super DNA." Would you care to comment on this?

JT : Dr. Miah's reasoning is definitely contemporary, in sharp contrast to the recent "realizations" that have taken place on Capitol Hill. Where the media's portrayal of performance enhancement use/abuse in athletics as "breaking news" is years behind, Dr. Miah's predictions may be slightly premature. However, the key word is here is "slightly." At this point, stem cell research is more pronounced and more documented than gene insertion. Stem cell research is directed more towards regeneration than enhancement. Research concerning genetic manipulation via gene insertion is a research topic more in its infant phase, but quickly gaining both support and funding.

Gene doping, at least at this stage, is far more expensive, complicated and uncertain, contrary to the relative inexpense and tenure of research and definitive results associated with other performance enhancers such as steroidal compounds and growth hormone.

Top professional athletes will be hesitant to jump on the gene doping bandwagon until its methods are more accessible and enhancing results more conclusive.Someone with a lucrative contract or the near certainty of one will be hesitant to use a method with uncertain results. However, those athletes who are not yet at the level mentioned above and who value a chance at fame and fortune more than their health may quickly jump onboard...or may already be in the driver's seat.

CK: What comments do you have concerning the permeation of steroids in the mainstream media such as the Roger Clemens testimony on Capitol Hill, Jose Canseco's book, and others?

JT: It's old news. These stories portray the use of performance enhancers in professional athletics as a novel and burgeoning topic, not as a tenured staple in high school, collegiate, and amateur and professional sports. However, I do not want to sound overly cynical because I believe the intended purpose of the crackdown is to make youth in America and abroad aware of the potential dangers of performance enhancers, as well as the legal and professional repercussions. Making an example of some professional "heroes" may have a much, much larger impact on our youth, than the threat of legal consequences alone. I am strongly in favor of educating our youth to take the most ethical path in life.

However, the public slaying of the careers of a few of our sports heroes is not nearly enough to derail an amateur athlete from dreams of a multi-million dollar contract and celebrity status. To effectively remove performance enhancers from our high school and collegiate locker rooms, these enhancers must be removed from professional sports through effective, mandatory testing.

A daunting task? Absolutely. An impossible task? Absolutely not.

Current testing for enhancers identifies compounds or close structural relatives of that compound. However, the tests are specific and make the "designer" market a relatively simple and lucrative one. A designer enhancer is one that, while still effective, cannot be detected by one of the specific tests just described. Unless a committee or agency can determine the structure of a certain designer enhancer or have that structure disclosed in a testimony, it is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. And if one designer enhancer can be identified, it is immediately obsolete and replaced by another. As an analogy, picture bacteria or a virus that constantly mutates, making medicines ineffective.

CK: Is there no solution then?

JT: The IOC and other testing agencies need only to look to the template provided by the Pentagon's IT defense system. If you want to create an operating system impermeable to hackers, what do you do? You track down the world's greatest hackers, offer the choice of employment and immunity or significant jail time, and let them design your system for you.

Editing by C. Davis Remignanti

Antoine du Rocher is managing editor of Culturekiosque.

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