WADA Director of Science Dr. Olivier Rabin is the driving force behind November’s international conference in Paris to examine ways to enhance the pharmaceutical and bio-technology industries’ role in the fight against doping in sport.
Dr. Rabin talks to Play True about the rationale of the conference and how the idea developed.
Play True: The ‘International Conference: The Pharmaceutical Industry and the Fight against Doping – New Partnerships for Clean Sport’ is the first event of its kind for WADA. How did it come about?
Olivier Rabin: The idea of having a conference of this nature has been in the making for a number of years and dates back to 2008 when WADA worked closely with Roche to develop a detection test for Mircera (CERA). There is a natural synergy between what WADA’s Science Department is mandated to do and the work of the pharmaceutical industry. This allowed collaboration between Roche and WADA to confront previously unexplored questions and issues.
It was important for WADA and the anti-doping community to find ways to tap into this expertise and at the same time help the industry to develop more global strategies to restrict abuse of their products.
PT: Explain the potential benefits that will be examined by members of the pharmaceutical industry, the anti-doping community and other interested parties during the Conference in Paris.
OR: WADA, and the world’s anti-doping community, currently operate under conditions whereby they often have to catch up with the sophisticated science of athletes who cheat by using doping substances. These athletes are well-financed and supported by individuals who know how to cheat the system and take advantage of its weaknesses.
That is arguably our biggest challenge at the moment, and the more communication we have with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies with regards to products that may enhance performance the more prepared the anti-doping community will be to meet that challenge, and the more the industry will be protected from drug abuse by the sport population.
Nobody knows these substances better than the companies that produce them, and their expertise is vital in terms of assisting WADA in developing early detection methods, either before the products have come to market or at the first signs of abuse by athletes.
PT: Are there specific examples of how such relationships with pharmaceutical companies can benefit the fight against doping in sport?
OR: Yes there are, and in particular the assistance we received from Roche when evidence first came to light that athletes were interested in the prohibited substance Mircera, which is an erythropoiesis stimulating agent developed by Roche to help anaemic patients with chronic kidney disease.
This product was released to market in 2008 ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games. With Roche’s expertise and co-operation, WADA was able to develop an anti-doping test that we implemented shortly after the commercial release of Mircera. Samples that had been taken in Beijing were tested for this new substance.
The outcome of this was that a number of athletes received sanctions, and athletes knew they could no longer abuse it without running the risk of getting caught. WADA also has a memorandum of understanding in place with the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) – also endorsed by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) – which is designed to share information on what is now considered a common issue.
PT: The potential benefits for WADA and the anti-doping community are clear to see; how will the Conference benefit the pharmaceutical industry?
OR: When a company releases a medicine or pharmaceutical product to market it is designed to produce health benefits, not to be abused by healthy athletes for cheating purposes. It should be remembered that athletes who dope are not only behaving in an ethically incorrect manner, they also are putting their health at risk, and setting an example that could expose other members of society to similar health risks.
The pharmaceutical industry acknowledges that it needs to protect its products from such abuse as part of their risk management plan and responsibility for new drugs.
here is also the very real problem of their products being copied illegally and produced on the black market specifically for athletic enhancement. The industry is obviously very aware of this problem and the Conference will allow an examination of how the anti-doping community can share information that could help prevent this on a more systematic basis.
PT: Was it difficult getting the Conference off the ground and generating interest and support among the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries?
OR: In reality no, but as with any international event there were many logistics that had to be taken into consideration, not least the busy schedules and responsibilities of those taking part.
Having spent several years in the pharmaceutical industry environment myself and knowing that the concept was a valid one, I was able to present it directly to contacts I have developed in the industry.
It soon became apparent that there was a strong support for such a conference, so it then became a matter of pulling it together. The health sector saw the potential right away, so did the public authorities.
PT: WADA and the pharmaceutical and bio-tech companies are not the only parties taking part; the conference is also receiving significant support from other organizations. How did this come about?
OR: Without the support of the French Ministry for Sport, the Council of Europe and UNESCO, it would have been a far greater challenge for WADA to arrange the Conference. In particular, the French Ministry for Sport – which is hosting the event – has given us tremendous support.
The Public authorities clearly understand that doping is a growing problem for sport, and also understand that it is no longer confined within sporting boundaries. Doping is now an issue that has the potential to affect the health and moral well-being of society, and it needs to be addressed at this level.
Likewise the Council of Europe, and UNESCO – already UNESCO plays a leading role in harnessing the support of governments in the fight against doping in sport.
PT: Are there any specific outcomes from the Conference that you are hoping for?
OR: We decided early on that we would not present a set of outcomes that we wanted the Conference to achieve. At this stage we wish to gather as many interested parties and stakeholders as possible, and explore ways that we could further increase such a co-operation.
As well as the sharing of information and expertise, we may also suggest the possibility of setting up a joint research foundation, envisage future conferences, and establish a framework for the future. With the high quality of the speakers and of the audience attending, I am confident we will hear many ideas throughout the day and I am very enthusiastic about the potential this has for the fight against doping in sport and beyond.