Pharma: February 2009 Archives


February 27, 2009

Read this article:
Eight different blood markers, including hemoglobin, are examined, said Robin Parisotto, a researcher from Australia. He is one of the nine scientists on an independent panel that reviews the abnormal blood profiles for the International Cycling Union, which is known as the U.C.I.

The markers are put into formulas and models that determine the statistical probabilities that an athlete is doping. Mr. Parisotto said the goal was to reach a 99.9 percent probability.

"The beauty with the blood passport is that you don't need to know each and every drug that is out there because you see the indication that something is being used," said Mr. Parisotto, who was the principal researcher in the creation of the first test for EPO used at the Olympic Games.

Now read this and ask yourself how well these tests were validated. The WADA writeup isn't very informative. Here's an overview of the research and here's a poster.

In this work, we estimated and integrated into a Bayesian network different components of variance of blood doping markers (hemoglobin, OFF-score, ABPS, tHb-mass) and steroid doping makers (T/E). The created network also included models of heterogeneous factors such as the influence of altitude on blood markers on the basis of a model proposed by the WHO. The Bayesian network has been validated and applied to more than 20,000 blood or steroid profiles. A software application, available upon demand, is capable of storing and interpreting an Athlete's Biological Passport.

These documents are pretty incomplete and it's a bit hard to figure out exactly how thorough the testing is. Intuitively, it seems like you'd need a pretty large baseline of samples to get a sufficiently high level of confidence. I wonder if 20,000 is the number of samples, athletes, or what? If it's 50 samples from 400 athletes, that's pretty different from 50 samples from 20,000 athletes.


February 12, 2009

The US Vaccine court has ruled in three cases that autistic children (or rather their parents) aren't entitled to compensation. From a technical persective, this is of course correct: there's just no evidence that vaccines cause autism except in exceptional cases. From a social perspective, I'm not sure it's such a great idea. As I understand it, the rationale for the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program is to provide stability in the vaccine system by providing a form of insurance for manufacturers. Since the parents of these children (and the thousands of other autistic children) don't show a lot of signs of giving up their beliefs about a vaccine-autism link, paying off these suits might be a cheap tradeoff to remove what's turning into a real (though imagined) disincentive for parents to vaccinate their children.

February 5, 2009

What's there to say about the whole idiotic Michael Phelps flap? The guy's 23. He smoked dope. Or not. What did you expect? Who cares? But then I read something like this:
U.S. swimming officials Thursday suspended Olympic hero Michael Phelps from competition for three months, the latest fallout from a photo that caught him puffing on a bong at a party.

USA Swimming, the sport's national governing body, also cut off its financial support to Phelps for the same three-month period, effective Thursday.

"This is not a situation where any anti-doping rule was violated, but we decided to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and a hero," the federation said in a statement. "Michael has voluntarily accepted this reprimand and has committed to earn back our trust."

So, I've never been a USA Swimming kid, but I remember competing in high school sports and I don't think that I would have been disappointed to discover that some athlete I respected (for their physical skills, remember!) had smoked marijuana. It wasn't like my teammates weren't getting drunk at parties. This whole meme that kids need to be protected from the very notion that professional athletes aren't perfect has a pretty strong odor of "I'm shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in this casino." Can people really have this little memory of what it was like to be kids themselves?

It's important to remember that from the perspective of the sport, smoking marijuana is really qualitively different from using steroids. Marijuana doesn't confer any kind of performance advantage so it doesn't undermine the sport [I'm not taking a position on whether steroids should be allowed or not. However, as long as they're banned, using them is cheating. Fair competition depends on rules, no matter how arbitrary.] The grounds for punishing athletes for using marijuana are (1) it's illegal so it "contravenes the spirit of the sport" and (2) it's bad for you. You might or might not think those are legitimate grounds for WADA to be doing anything, but certainly they're a lot less legitimate than those for regulating steroids or EPO. There's no real connection to the sport; WADA is just punishing athletes for behaviors they disapprove of.

One more observation: the selection of marijuana is fairly arbitrary. Remember that alcohol is illegal in some jurisdictions, but it's not a prohibited substance for athletes to use outside of competition.