Xenon: the Next Big Thing in 'legal' doping?

Obscure inert gas stimulates EPO production in mice

by John Stevenson   February 7, 2014  

Syringe

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Unless you’re a bit of a chemistry geek, you’ve probably never heard of xenon. That’s about to change as the gas is being reported as the Next Big Thing in (possibly) legal performance enhancement.

Xenon is one of the noble gases, the group of chemically unreactive elements that hang out on the far right of the periodic table, largely minding their own business. The group includes balloon-filling gas helium and neon, used to make glowing signs.

While it’s hard to get xenon to react chemically, it turns out to have some biological uses. It’s an anaesthetic, and thanks to recent improvements in its extraction from the atmosphere, xenon-based anaesthetic machines are beginning to appear.

It also turns out to stimulate the body to produce a hormone everyone in cycling has heard of: erythropoietin, or EPO.

EPO in turn triggers the creation of red blood cells, increasing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and therefore improving performance in aerobic sports such as cycling, cross-country skiing and running.

According to an article in The Economist, Russia has been using xenon as a performance-enhancer for a few years now. A 2010 document produced by the State Research Institute of the Ministry of Defence advises on how to use the gas. Before competition it can help with listlessness and sleep disruption, and afterwards it can improve recovery.

The manual recommends a 50:50 mixture of xenon and oxygen, inhaled for a few minutes, ideally before going to bed. The gas’s action continues for 48 to 72 hours, so it should be repeated every few days.

Xenon doesn’t just stimulate EPO production. Because it works by activating production of a protein called Hif-1 alpha, which in turn causes production of other hormones as well as EPO, the manual claims its benefits include increasing heart and lung capacity, preventing muscle fatigue, boosting testosterone and improving an athlete’s mood.

There are as yet no studies in humans measuring xenon’s effect on EPO production, so it’s possible this is all placebo effect. But a 2009 study in mice by Mervyn Maze at Imperial College, London, found that exposing the animals to a mixture of 70% xenon and 30% oxygen for two hours more than doubled the animals’ EPO levels a day later.

That’s a much longer-lasting effect than traditional legal methods of stimulating EPO production such as sleeping in a hypoxic ‘altitude’ tent, where the effect vanishes after a few hours.

If xenon use becomes more widespread, the question will be, is it allowed under  World Anti-Doping Agency rules?

The Russians clearly think so. The country has honoured Atom Medical Centre, a  medical xenon producer, for its help preparing athletes for the 2004 summer Olympics and the 2006 winter games.

Under ‘Prohibited methods’, WADA’s Prohibited List says this about messing about with your blood to increase its ability to carry oxygen:

M1. Manipulation Of Blood And Blood Components

The following are prohibited:

1. The administration or reintroduction of any quantity of autologous, allogenic (homologous) or heterologous blood or red blood cell products of any origin into the circulatory system.

2. Artificially enhancing the uptake, transport or delivery of oxygen, including,but not limited to, perfluorochemicals, efaproxiral (RSR13) and modified haemoglobin products (e.g. haemoglobin-based blood substitutes, microencapsulated haemoglobin products), excluding supplemental oxygen.

3. Any form of intravascular manipulation of the blood or blood components by physical or chemical means.

It could be argued that paragraph 3 would cover xenon use, though you could also argue that it’s so broadly worded that it could cover just about anything an athlete does that might affect the blood, including training and racing.

WADA’s prohibited list is underpinned by the WADA Code, which says that to be considered doping a substance or method has to meet two out of three criteria. It has to enhance performance, it has to present a health risk or it has to violate the spirit of sport.

If inhaling an obscure gas turns out to be provably performance-enhancing but not harmful, WADA could be in the interesting position of deciding to invoke the ‘spirit of sport’ rule if it wanted to ban the use of xenon.

28 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

Well I knew my BSAC Dive Leader and Nitrox qualifications would come in handy sooner or later. I'm off down to my local BOC dealer for 50:50 mixture of xenon and oxygen Rolling On The Floor

posted by Roberj4 [194 posts]
7th February 2014 - 12:18

32 Likes

[goes outside to inhale the contents of car headlights]

Nope, I'm still slow.

Last night I would have considered trading a very loud baby for a really nice bike.

posted by notfastenough [3205 posts]
7th February 2014 - 12:20

51 Likes

Ban it. Science diets, extremely hi-tech and often secret training programmes/schedules, altitude training and technology is one thing. Intentionally administering a specific chemical through a process of special chemical extraction and then the special treatment using that chemical just feels wrong.

And, if, and its a big IF, Team Sky are doing this because their training is robustly secretive then shame on them. Its just doping in another form. Wasn't there something about Dave B not disclosing his teams training secrets that got in the media?

I hope I am very wrong. About all of it Smile

posted by Critchio [110 posts]
7th February 2014 - 12:25

28 Likes

I guess it is doping by a different method. The question is can you successfully outlaw this?

Is there a test for inhalation of xenon?

JaseCD

posted by jasecd [147 posts]
7th February 2014 - 12:29

29 Likes

notfastenough wrote:
[goes outside to inhale the contents of car headlights]

Nope, I'm still slow.

....but your night vision rocks!

posted by allez neg [4 posts]
7th February 2014 - 12:30

50 Likes

allez neg wrote:
notfastenough wrote:
[goes outside to inhale the contents of car headlights]

Nope, I'm still slow.

....but your night vision rocks!

Ba-dum tish! Very good!

Last night I would have considered trading a very loud baby for a really nice bike.

posted by notfastenough [3205 posts]
7th February 2014 - 13:00

28 Likes

I'm here all week.....available for weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs etc etc

I'll get my coat

posted by allez neg [4 posts]
7th February 2014 - 13:23

30 Likes

Honestly, I will be bitterly disappointed if a team called Sky aren't using a gas that is found in the air we breathe.

posted by farrell [1459 posts]
7th February 2014 - 13:33

34 Likes

Quote: "M1. Manipulation Of Blood And Blood Components

The following are prohibited:"

This practice clearly violates paragraph 2 (not 3) as it refers to "Artificially enhancing the uptake, transport or delivery of oxygen, including,but not limited to,..." (whereas paragraph 3 refers to "intravascular manipulation....". Note also that supplemental oxygen is excluded.

Is it doping? - Of course it is!

Can the Xenon be tested for? - don't know yet.

Can the effects be tested for? - Yes, fairly easily, assuming that the practice is not used consistently throughout the whole year/career, it would show through biological passports where changes in hormone levels and Haemocrit would be evident.

Is this cheating? - Of course it is!

Will people cheat this way? - Of course they will because some people will cheat in whatever way they can and will always justify themselves in whatever way they can. But they will always be in the wrong!

Shay

posted by shay cycles [226 posts]
7th February 2014 - 13:46

30 Likes

WTF
Whats with the Sky accusations, anyone could be doing this in any sport?

Agree with the comments about if on the biological passport then this should show up, unless they have been taking it since day one and its appears as a natural level, in which case you probably can't spot it at the moment.

Is it cheating? I think so.

'It's the closest you can get to flying'
Robin Williams response when asked why he enjoyed riding so much

posted by Simmo72 [314 posts]
7th February 2014 - 14:07

24 Likes

Breathing concentrated levels of xenon wouldn't be detectable but the after effects would be.

Wasn't the biological passport system created to pick up abnormal levels of haemoglobin no matter how this occurred - EPO, blood transfusion, altitude training etc. - so surely inhalation of concentrated levels of xenon would flag under the bio passport system

posted by usedtobefaster [93 posts]
7th February 2014 - 14:14

33 Likes

I produce a lot of gas, try and time it right at the start of each climb. Wonder if I can bottle it and sell it to Team Sky Sick

posted by Roberj4 [194 posts]
7th February 2014 - 14:32

29 Likes

Why are Sky even being mentioned, this is how rumours start ! Surely the only association in the article above is with Russian research & possibly therefore Russian Athletes/teams might be involved.
In any event I'm not so certain that this is "cheating" .... in exactly the same way, certain types of training or modified equipment push the boundaries, this surely being a natural occurrence in elite sport ?

Timsen

posted by Timsen [40 posts]
7th February 2014 - 14:54

25 Likes

Don't really get all the Sky comments? Seems like as the above comments have stated the biological passport would still catch people using Xenon

posted by jarredscycling [451 posts]
7th February 2014 - 16:03

30 Likes

Given drugs that inhibit HIF1A have been developed for treating tumour growth this might not be such a great idea .....

posted by MattT53 [127 posts]
7th February 2014 - 17:03

22 Likes

Timsen wrote:
Why are Sky even being mentioned, this is how rumours start ! Surely the only association in the article above is with Russian research & possibly therefore Russian Athletes/teams might be involved.
In any event I'm not so certain that this is "cheating" .... in exactly the same way, certain types of training or modified equipment push the boundaries, this surely being a natural occurrence in elite sport ?

I'm inclined to agree - like F1 where lots of very clever people analyse the rulebook for areas where a new interpretation may give half-a-tenth (their equivalent of marginal gains!)

Is it hugely different from sportsman using oxygen tents and hyperbaric chambers et al for recovery from illness and injury?

posted by allez neg [4 posts]
7th February 2014 - 17:05

27 Likes

Presumably the Russian use of Xenon gas indicates that this is still at the most basic level. No doubt it will soon progress...

with the use of Veloce, Centaur and ultimately to super Record gas...

Are the Japanese experimenting with inhaling Sora & Tiagra gas?

Grizzerly

posted by Grizzerly [120 posts]
7th February 2014 - 17:50

31 Likes

Just had a whole balloons worth.... Made my voice go very high pitched and my youngest is now crying. Damn wish I'd not speed read the article now

posted by Flying Heron [32 posts]
7th February 2014 - 19:40

20 Likes

Flying Heron wrote:
Just had a whole balloons worth.... Made my voice go very high pitched and my youngest is now crying. Damn wish I'd not speed read the article now

Would i be a total killjoy geek if I said that actually your voice was very very low as it is much denser than air ? Smile

posted by edster99 [172 posts]
7th February 2014 - 19:49

23 Likes

What about just Helium in your tyres?



Suffering from Low Cadence.

bikeboy76's picture

posted by bikeboy76 [1302 posts]
7th February 2014 - 20:11

16 Likes

I knew about Xenon ages ago...and when Xenon II came out on the Atari ST...

Perhaps lie detector tests should standard at grand tours. When ever there is money involved there's gonna be skull duggery.

posted by ronin [142 posts]
7th February 2014 - 21:00

19 Likes

The thing that impresses most about this article is the imaginatively captioned photograph of the fairly irrelevant syringe....

@rich22222

posted by rich22222 [111 posts]
7th February 2014 - 22:11

19 Likes

Same here! 32 year's man and boy. Nothing like a bit of BSAC qualification dropping on a cycling site... Scapa?

Silly me. You're probably right....

MercuryOne's picture

posted by MercuryOne [1059 posts]
7th February 2014 - 23:59

18 Likes

MercuryOne wrote:
Same here! 32 year's man and boy. Nothing like a bit of BSAC qualification dropping on a cycling site... Scapa?

I'm sitting on the sofa right now with a rich Xenon mix in the re-breather... Bit chilly for Scapa today.

posted by CarbonBreaker [81 posts]
8th February 2014 - 18:24

19 Likes

Well to anyone who has ever been blinded by those bloody xenon headlights many cars have now, this will give a new meaning to dopers "glowing"...!

Otis Bragg's picture

posted by Otis Bragg [117 posts]
8th February 2014 - 18:42

13 Likes

Xenon can usually be easily detected by Travis Tygart's see through X-ray vision. However, I happen to have limited supply of Kryptonite masking agent from the planet Krypton which is guaranteed to fog Tygart's vision. Jut deposit 100 pounds in my paypal account "Lanx Luthorstrong" with a message containing your postal address and I'll send you 1 gram.

Charlie Horse

posted by ch [100 posts]
8th February 2014 - 19:35

18 Likes

rich22222 wrote:
The thing that impresses most about this article is the imaginatively captioned photograph of the fairly irrelevant syringe....

You beat me to it rich22222! Has this picture always been captioned and I have not noticed?
(a) Surely this caption will encourage people to inject the Xenon Rolling On The Floor
(b) Surely the caption should say syringe and needle Rolling On The Floor
Pedantic.... moi? Wink
But whatever; it is not very noble is it?

posted by SideBurn [808 posts]
9th February 2014 - 11:57

13 Likes

The 'obscure' gas that 'only chemistry geeks have heard of'.. - apart, of course, from most car drivers, who either make use of it in their headlights or who have been blinded by someone else who does..

Interested to see the performance enhancing effects of using a syringe (pictured) to inject the gas into the bloodstream!!

posted by 700c [556 posts]
10th February 2014 - 15:22

7 Likes