Perikles Simon – more than just hunting down the dope cheats
Whether it be the Olympic Games, world championships or the Tour de France – whenever a big sports event is coming up, Dr. Dr. Perikles Simon from the University Hospital of Tübingen is a sought-after interviewee for the media. The sports medicine specialist is one of many scientists who are leading the fight against doping in sport. Simon has developed a test which may eventually help detect the latest performance-enhancing method – gene doping. The versatile researcher is not only involved in the detection of doping amongst professional athletes.
For the last few months, sports medicine specialist and molecular biologist, Dr. Dr. Perikles Simon, has been one of the 7-member “Gene Doping” group of experts within the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Recently, his expert opinion was also sought by the Sports Committee of the German Parliament. The scientist’s participation on such boards is not without reason.
Simon developed a method that enables the detection of the smallest amounts of transgenic DNA in humans, i.e. foreign DNA that has been introduced into the body's cells using genetic engineering methods in order to enhance an athlete's physical performance. Before the test can actually be used on athletes, some refinements are required. But Simon is convinced that it will not be long before the test catches its first dope cheats.
The 36-year-old researcher rather enjoys his anti-doping role, despite the fact that a career in the world of sports was not originally part of his plans. Simon, at 2 metres tall, is the ideal height to be an athlete. In fact, he used to be a talented athlete before starting his medical studies at the University of Tübingen when he developed an interest in neuroscientific issues. This interest was sparked off by a one-year research stay at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where Simon came into contact with state-of-the-art gene therapy methods. "That's when I developed an interest in basic biology," said the scientist.
Back in Germany, Simon continued with molecular biology studies at the Graduate School of Neural and Behavioural Sciences in Tübingen. “I was glad I did not have to go back to studying beetles and plants again, and that I was able to specialise in neurobiology right away,” said the researcher with a smile. Simon subsequently did his post-doctoral studies at the Institute of Brain Research at the University of Tübingen, publishing numerous scientific papers. The professional career of the successful young scientist seemed predetermined. However, once reality set in, life led him in a very different direction.
“I slowly realised how small the feasible goals were in the field of neuroregeneration,” recalled Simon. A key experience was a vector that was used as negative control in a gene therapy experiment Simon was doing that should not have shown any effect but turned out to have a huge effect. The vector that was used as a vehicle turned out to be responsible for the neuroprotective reaction in the experiment rather than the genes that had been introduced with some difficulty. “Five years of research in this area leading to many results like this, is quite frustrating,” admitted Simon adding, that had he wished to do so, he could have exploited the huge interest, and the excellent funding, in the neurosciences for much longer. However, he ended up leaving the field because he no longer enjoyed it.
The alternative: sports medicine
What happened next was that he made a radical decision. “I was prepared to lower my sights,” recalled Simon who then decided to focus on sports medicine, something that his colleagues considered to be a somewhat strange move. “’Can you really do research in that field?’ was one of the most frequent questions I heard,” says Simon with a laugh. Despite the comments he went ahead anyway. “If it is so difficult to understand the sick body, maybe we should deal with the healthy body first,” said Simon, summarising his decision. Simon is now head of the molecular biology laboratory at the Department of Sports Medicine where he focuses on people who should not normally be sick – namely children and young adults.
“The number of overweight children is increasing enormously,” said the researcher who has commenced a cooperative project with the Children’s Hospital in Tübingen focusing on ways to prevent obesity, along with all the other complications it entails. But he knows from his own experience that far fewer research funds are available for primary prevention than for the neurosciences. “I find this difficult to understand,” said Simon. Maybe the reason is that this type of work attracts less public attention, in total contrast to the gene doping detection method that the ambitious scientist developed two years ago.
Alarming doping practices
“The fight against doping is also a kind of primary prevention,” said Simon, in an effort to console himself, “even though we only deal with a small group of high professional athletes in this particular case.” However, experience shows that new performance-enhancing substances and methods often find their way quite quickly into leisure sports.
"It is difficult to believe what some people are capable of doing in the name of sport, beauty and fitness," said the medical expert, "it is really frightening."
Asked whether he believes that gene doping is already being used among athletes, Simon says that he cannot be sure, but he is afraid it may well be the case. The efficiency of the method has already been demonstrated in animal experiments. When the muscles of apes are transfected with a vector that contains the gene for erythropoietin (EPO), it is possible to increase the erythrocyte concentration in the blood. "I don't see any reason why this should not work in humans. And this is what exactly what athletes who dope are seeking," said Simon, "just a bit more EPO or any other hormone in their system." The vector can already be purchased on the Internet; the health risks cannot yet be foreseen.
It is an ironic twist of fate that the various gene therapy approaches cannot cure diseases, but instead they open up a new dimension for doping in sports. “The question needs to be asked as to whether medical research should really be dedicated to such excesses,” said Simon, adding “work like this nevertheless sometimes leads to insights that can be very useful in other areas.” For example, Simon hopes that the highly sensitive method that is being developed for detecting doping in athletes will also prove suitable for use in tumour diagnostics.
For Simon, the risk he took in changing from the neurosciences to a new field of research has also turned out to be advantageous to him personally. Last year – only four years after his career change – the University of Mainz offered him a chair in sports medicine. Simon took his time to decide: “I had to find out first whether the infrastructure in Mainz would be as good as in Tübingen and I needed to be sure that I would be able to continue my research.”
Dr. med. Dr. rer. nat. Perikles Simon
University Hospital Tübingen
Department of Sports Medicine
Tel.: +49 (0)7071 29 85163