A Scientist in the Service of Clean Sports

a man swimming in a pool

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"One world, one dream" is the official motto of the 2008 Olympic Games, which kick off next week in Beijing. But while athletes and coaches dream of gold medals, the dreams of the World Anti-Doping Agency are of fair games.

Since it was established in 1999 following a doping scandal at the Tour de France, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has supported antidoping research, educated athletes and their coaches, and coordinated international antidoping efforts to keep sports free from performance-enhancing drugs. For the Beijing Olympics, WADA has helped put in place antidoping measures and will monitor antidoping efforts during the games.

Among WADA's guardians of sport integrity is chemist and immunologist Osquel Barroso, senior manager of the organization's science department, who was born in Havana, Cuba, in the late 1960s. "The most important thing in this job is to really feel ... that you are working for ... a just cause," he says. "[We] try to keep the sport clean." Barroso's journey to a career that combined his twin passions--science and sport--was convoluted and unplanned.

A hurdles race

Courtesy of Osquel Barroso

As a student in Cuba in the mid-1980s, Barroso wanted to study computer science, but he ranked fourth in a national competition for just two open spaces to study mathematics in the former German Democratic Republic. So he went for his second option: studying radiochemistry at Lomonosov Moscow State University, which at the time was the "Cambridge or Harvard in the Eastern bloc," Barroso says. Living in Moscow was life-changing for Barroso. He had grown up with the image of the former Soviet Union as "the dream of the future," he says. But once there, "we witnessed the problems that the Soviet Union was facing socially and politically. ... This challenged my view of the world."

When Barroso came back to Cuba in 1992--after the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union--with a 5-year master's degree in chemistry, the country was in a "complete crisis," he says. It took until the following March for Barroso to find a job at the Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM) in Havana. There he worked on anticancer vaccines, identifying drug targets, preparing vaccine formulations, and testing cellular responses in vaccinated patients. "I didn't choose immunology consciously. I was pushed by life, getting into it slowly."

At CIM, Barroso did well in the most advanced immunology course in Cuba, so he received permission to go to the United Kingdom to pursue a master's degree in immunology at the former Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London, which is now part of Imperial College London (ICL). He obtained one of the three British Council scholarships available that year for Cuban students. He graduated in 1997 at the top of his class with the ICI prize for the best student of the year. He went back to Cuba.

But he didn't stay long in his homeland; having grown to love immunology, Barroso started his Ph.D. in 1998 in the United Kingdom with a studentship from Glaxo Wellcome (which in 2000 became GlaxoSmithKline, GSK). Barroso spent his first year at GSK's Biopharmaceuticals Centre of Excellence for Drug Discovery near London looking at the use of adenoviruses in gene-transfer therapy. He then spent 3 years working on the mechanisms of transplant rejection and T cell activation in the Department of Immunology at ICL.

After completing his Ph.D. in 2002 and staying on at ICL for a 2-year postdoc, Barroso took a senior scientist position in cancer immunotherapy at GSK. Just 1 year into the job, Barroso was promoted to a leader position, managing a 15-person team working on therapies for autoimmune diseases. "My progress at GSK was quite fast," Barroso says, attributing that success to "being always encouraged to move forward and given the opportunity to express myself."

Ready for the high jump

Barroso liked his job at GSK and wasn't expecting to change jobs anytime soon. But "I am crazy about sports. ... If I wasn't a scientist, I would have loved to be an athlete." He spent much of his childhood playing soccer or doing athletics, and one of his happiest memories was making it to the final in a sporting competition on national television called "A jugar!" In April 2006, he saw an ad for his current position at WADA. It seemed like "the perfect combination of what I love to do in life. ... I knew it was a gamble in a way, but in life you have to be lucky and grab the opportunities when they are" there, he says.

Barroso joined WADA's headquarters in Montreal in January 2007. WADA's science department director, Olivier Rabin, found many reasons to select Barroso from among the more than 80 applications he received for the position. Barroso's broad knowledge of chemistry and immunology were directly relevant to the field of antidoping, and his scientific background included "a good combination of basic science and applied science and management of science," Rabin says. Today, "Osquel is acting as a transversal link between the different [scientific] activities at WADA," Rabin says.

Barroso identifies relevant research areas and selects antidoping research proposals for funding, and he manages some of these research projects. For example, he recently contributed to the development of a test for human growth hormone doping, bringing experts together to offer guidance on the design of the studies and to guarantee that new tests are fit for antidoping purposes, scientifically and legally.

In addition, Barroso is involved in keeping an up-to-date list of the substances that cannot be used in sport without a therapeutic exemption, and he helps with the accreditation of antidoping testing laboratories. He's also responsible for disseminating research results to laboratories, international sports federations, and other antidoping organizations.

"The thing all of us learn when we join is that science is also developed in a legal and political context. ... The accuracy of science and the neutrality of science and the environment in which such science [is done] has to fit into the more general context of antidoping," Rabin says. Framing antidoping science so that politicians can take it onboard and the public understands it is an important part of the job.

Gaining momentum

"The job market for antidoping science is not extremely vast," Rabin says, but he nonetheless sees expanding opportunities. Organizations like WADA have created a momentum that Rabin believes will cause the number of scientists in antidoping agencies to grow over the next 5 years. For "people who are highly motivated in ... sports science and are not afraid of administration and politics, this could be an environment that [is] very attractive."

Still, you would be hard-pressed to plan a career in the field. "None of my colleagues in the science department thought one day they would work in antidoping," Rabin says. Instead, they recognized the opportunity when it arose, saying, "Yes, let's do it after all."

Back in Beijing, the antidoping test laboratories are ready to spring into action. Partly thanks to Barroso's efforts, "there are going to be ... [tests] for more substances than ever before," he says. More than 4000 urine tests and 600 blood tests are going to be performed, covering the whole range of substances on the prohibited list, Barroso explains. "We hope that the deterrent is strong enough for athletes not to come to Beijing doped. ... We hope it's going to be clean, because they are going to risk their careers and their reputations."

Also this week in Science ...

SCIENCE AT THE OLYMPICS: Does Doping Work? (subscription required)

Amphetamines and anabolic steroids can improve performance in certain athletic events. But there's little hard evidence for the efficacy of dozens of other compounds on the list of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Text in paragraph 10 corrected, 28 August 2008

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