Xenon gas should be banned, says Garmin-Sharp doctor

Team discussed use but felt it crossed the line

Xenon gas, the latest drug to hit the headlines after allegations that Russian athletes used the substance at the Olympic Games in Sochi, should be added to WADA’s banned list, says one leading WorldTour doctor.

The gas, which stimulates the production of EPO, and increases heart and lung capacity, is not on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) banned list and although the agency has recently stated that it will discuss the matter during a post-Olympic meeting, one leading WorldTour physician believes that it constitutes doping and should be banned.

Prentice Steffen MD, head physician at Garmin-Sharp, told Cyclingnews that although the team he worked for looked into the idea of using the Xenon, they were quickly put off. Although not on WADA’s banned list the use of the gas by humans has very little research attached to it. The fact that it stimulates the effects of doping, despite arguably still a legal substance, crosses an ethical boundary too, according to Steffen.

Earlier this week former WADA president Dick Pound told WDR that. "Let us realise without doubt that this is doping and it is impossible to say in this process that the rules are not clear."

However the matter remains ambiguous to some, Vladimir Uiba, the head of Russia's Federal Biomedical Agency, stated that there was "nothing wrong" if the Russian team used the drug. "We use what is not illegal, is not destructive and does not have side effects,” he added.

Steffen, who was instrumental in the UCI’s adoption of the no needle policy within the peloton told Cyclingnews that, “We looked into Xenon, honestly, but we had several concerns about it and we ultimately decided not to use it. There’s really nothing good in terms of safety or athletic enhancement and then you throw in the ethical considerations. I personally feel that it crosses a line and that it’s unethical so we decided not to pursue it.”

“We were trying to think of what the up sides would be but it’s pure speculation because there’s no research on it. We think that it would just displace oxygen but that you’d get the same effect from breathing a lower concentration of oxygen compared to air. But it’s just speculation and as far of the ill effects we have no idea. If you compare it to radon, which has some cancer risk effects.”

The current WADA code states that "Artificially enhancing the uptake, transport or delivery of oxygen, including, but not limited to, perfluorochemicals, efaproxiral (RSR13) and modified haemoglobin products (eg haemoglobin-based blood substitutes, microencapsulated haemoglobin products), excluding supplemental oxygen."

For Steffen part of the issue comes down to ambiguity within the code, as well as a lack of flexibility.

“The very first paragraph in the WADA code talks about pharmacological agents that aren’t approved for human use as being illegal and then you can argue that Xenon is such an agent because if you’re using it is and I put that out as my first response when we were discussing it.”

“There was talk of carbon monoxide being a good stimulant for EPO production. We heard that a team in the last year had been experimenting with that, and that’s similar to Xenon in general terms. We thought it was probably a bad idea to try and pursue the idea.”

“I think enough people could look at the arguments in the same way as we did and come up with the opposite conclusion. I think it would be unethical and a little crazy but it’s not clear cut until WADA, and that’s the thing with the Code, which I think could have more flexibility so that these things can be added quickly rather than maybe two years from now.”

“I think it’s sometimes the letter of the law rather than the intent. I think there’s sometimes room for interpretation in there. People can come to different conclusions given the code’s ambiguity or lack of flexibility. Then of course you have another group to consider, those that disregard the code entirely.”

Asked if he felt that Xenon should be added to the banned list, Steffen said: “It would be good to specify so that it wasn’t open to interpretation, so yes.”

Steffen has also pushed for WADA to tackle the use of Tramadol. Last year Cyclingnews learned that riders were using the opiate during training and that in competition use was also being abused. The MPCC, of which Garmin-Sharp are members, have brought the use of Tramadol to WADA’s attention and the substance remains on the agency’s watch list for 2014.

“I know that WADA are considering it but that for 2014 it remains on the watch list. I know that the MPCC just wrote a letter to the new president of WADA requesting that it be looked at again and stating to WADA that the MPCC have agreed to treat it as an illegal in competition drug. We’ve sworn to use it only out of competition which I think is reasonable.”

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