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Meth vaccine shows promise in early testing

Considered one of the most widely abused and addictive recreational drugs, researchers may be one step closer to knocking down the destructive pull of methamphetamine.

A team of scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla has developed a vaccine that appears to protect against meth intoxication in laboratory animals.

The next step will be to see if it works in people, too.

“This is an early-stage study, but its results are comparable to those for other drug vaccines that have gone to clinical trials,” said Michael Taffe, a Scripps researcher with the institute’s Committee on the Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders.

The study was released online last week in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Methamphetamine has become one of the most common and destructive recreational drugs in the country. In the United States, government data estimate that there are currently more than 430,000 users, with more than 41,000 new users this year. And in California, meth accounts for more primary drug abuse treatment admission – 26 percent – than any other drug, including marijuana (21 percent) and alcohol (12 percent). The state's Central Valley is considered to be the hub of nation’s meth distribution network. 


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Cyclist turned to sport to avoid drugs, but ended up doping

For fans and officials alike, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s dossier on cyclist Lance Armstrong was dispiriting. It detailed how one of the greatest stars in cycling history had used banned drugs for years and systematically lied to cover it up.

The agency's evidence file became public Oct. 10 and didn't contain much that was new to Armstrong's fans or detractors. The exception was one disturbing narrative – the tragic personal story of a lanky Utah native specializing in solo races against the clock.

Before the files became public, claims that Armstrong’s blood tests exhibited unusual chemistry, consistent with possible doping, had been reported elsewhere, including by California Watch. Former teammates Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis had gone on national television to describe how they used banned drugs with Armstrong.

But there hadn’t even been advance rumors about what might be contained in an anti-doping agency statement from David Zabriskie, known mostly for a sardonic wit he shared with teammates on the U.S. Postal Service team and at his current job riding for the Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda team.

In telling his story, Zabriskie added pathos to what had been widely considered a no-harm, no-foul doping scandal – and rebutted the view, embraced by some of Armstrong’s supporters, that drugs in cycling hadn’t truly hurt anyone after all.


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Report: 'Army of enablers' assisted Armstrong's doping

Cycling superstar Lance Armstrong won seven straight victories in the Tour de France with the aid of an “army of enablers” who provided him with banned drugs and helped him cover up his misconduct, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says.

Joe McGowan/Flickr Lance Armstrong in 2009


Cycling superstar Lance Armstrong won seven straight victories in the Tour de France with the aid of an “army of enablers” who provided him with banned drugs and helped him cover up his misconduct, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says.

An investigative report made public today claims that Armstrong became the dominant cyclist of his era through systematic use of performance enhancers: steroids, blood transfusions, human growth hormone and the blood doping drug EPO.

Over the course of his 16-year career, Armstrong lied repeatedly about his drug use, according to the report – the result of a two-year-long probe by the anti-doping agency.

Armstrong also bullied his fellow riders on the U.S. Postal Service cycling team to use banned drugs and required them to lie about rampant drug use in their sport, the report claims.

The agency said it based its searing portrayal of the cycling champion on the testimony of 15 professional cyclists – 11 of them from the USPS team, where Armstrong won most of his glory.

The report was studded with details of an alleged doping culture. Former team members recalled being told to fetch foil-covered steroid pills for their team leader. The team’s masseuse said she shopped for makeup to cover Armstrong’s needle marks.

By keeping silent about the apparent doping, masseuse Emma O’Reilly told investigators she “was no better than the directors, doctors and trainer who were actively running the doping programs.”

A team doctor provided cyclists with human growth hormone, the report alleged, and it said the team manager arranged a private jet flight to Spain before the 2000 Tour de Franceso that Armstrong and another cycling star, Tyler Hamilton, could obtain secret blood transfusions in a hotel room.

Armstrong, who retired in 2011, contends he never used banned drugs. His lawyer, Tim Herman, denounced the doping agency’s report todayas a “one-sided hatchet job,” saying it was created with “coerced testimony” from “axe-grinders (and) serial perjurers.” Herman said their stories had been “coerced.”

But in a statement, the agency’s chief executive, Travis Tygart, contended that the cyclists who implicated Armstrong had voluntarily told the truth after years of lying.

Other witnesses in the report include Santa Rosa’s Levi Leipheimer, who rides for the Omega Pharma–Quick-Step team; Canadian cyclist Michael Barry; and ex-racers Stephen Swart, George Hincapie and Frankie Andreu.

In 2006, Andreu and his wife, Betsy, testified in arbitration proceedings that they heard Armstrong admit to using performance-enhancing drugs while undergoing cancer treatments.           

“Lance could not have done it on his own,” Betsy Andreu told California Watch. “This is a story that has to be told: the cover-up and how he got away with it.”

The report focuses largely how Armstrong came to create a “doping culture” on the USPS team.

The team, disbanded in 2005, obtained millions of dollars in sponsorship fees from the postal service. It was owned by Tailwind Sports, a San Francisco company established by financier Thomas Weisel, founder of the Montgomery Securities investment firm.

The report says the team was built around “a small army of enablers, including doping doctors, drug smugglers, and others within and outside the sport” who assisted Armstrong in obtaining drugs and avoiding detection.

Among the most important, the report contends, was Dr. Michele Ferrari, a controversial Italian physician and sports trainer with a reputation for keeping years ahead of cutting-edge doping tests.

In the final years of his career, Armstrong paid a company controlled by Ferrari more than $1 million, the report contends. In exchange, Ferrari devised a sophisticated doping regimen for the entire postal service team, the report says.

Cyclists faced firing if they didn’t follow Ferrari’s protocol, which called for using drugs and transfusions to alter the cyclists’ blood chemistry – and maximize performance.

Another alleged enabler was USPS team manager Johan Bruyneel, recruited by Armstrong from the Spanish team ONCE. The report says that team was infamous for its own illicit doping program.

Bruyneel allegedly devised a system of transporting drugs and blood bags to cyclists under the eyes of drug testers. It was Bruyneel, Hamilton testified, who helped arrange the private jet flight to Spain for transfusions. That occurred one month before the 2000 tour, which Armstrong went on to win.

Other alleged enablers included cyclists who said they were sometimes asked to fetch drugs, and employees such as O’Reilly, the former team masseuse. In testimony, USPS cyclists Hincapie and Jonathan Vaughters said they’d entrusted O’Reilly to carry banned drugs for them.

O’Reilly testified that Armstrong once asked her to buy cosmetics to conceal an arm bruise from a syringe. At another point, O’Reilly said Armstrong asked her to get rid of a bag of empty syringes. She said she assumed the cyclist had used the syringes during the Tour of the Netherlands, a multiday race, in 1998.

Armstrong retired from cycling in 2011. The anti-doping agency called for a lifetime ban in August, after Armstrong announced he would not contest doping charges filed against him.

First doping claims in 1999

Armstrong first was linked to doping after the 1999 Tour de France, when the French daily Le Monde unearthed blood tests that were positive for a steroid. But a team doctor’s note said Armstrong had used a prescribed cream for saddle sores, and he wasn’t sanctioned.

For the rest of Armstrong’s career, reports appeared regularly – in newspaper and broadcast exposés, tell-all books and public statements from fellow cyclists – claiming he used drugs.

Armstrong insisted he was drug-free, noting he had undergone hundreds of drug tests and never failed one. As he said in 2000, when a French television report sought to tie him to EPO: “I’ve never tested positive; I’ve never been caught with anything.”

He has been particularly aggressive in his comments about the anti-doping agency, calling it a “kangaroo court” that is seeking to frame him with false testimony. He complains he was targeted by the agency because he criticized it for allegedly railroading other accused athletes.

The agency’s probe began in 2010 when an agency official met with an associate of cycling star Floyd Landis to discuss suspected drug use on the USPS team, court records show.

Meanwhile, Food and Drug Administration agent Jeff Novitzky, who led the probe that ensnared San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds in the BALCO steroid scandal, was investigating suspected doping on a Los Angeles-based pro cycling team, the New York Daily News hasreported.

The federal investigation turned to Armstrong after Landis sent emails to cycling regulators detailing his own doping history and implicating Armstrong. Federal law enforcement officials spent 20 months following up on Landis’ leads before dropping the case without explanation in February.

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'Professionalized' doping program aided Armstrong, agency says

Cycling superstar Lance Armstrong earned his unprecedented seven victories in the Tour de France with the aid of a “sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program” on his racing team, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said today.

Eleven former cyclists from the U.S. Postal Service team have told investigators that for years, Armstrong used an array of performance-enhancing drugs, the agency’s chief executive, Travis Tygart, said in a statement.

Riders on Armstrong’s team were pressured to take banned drugs and participate in a cover-up of doping on the team, Tygart said.

“The evidence of the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team-run scheme is overwhelming and is in excess of 1,000 pages, and includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including 15 riders with knowledge of the US Postal Service Team,” the release says. It adds that a full evidence dossier will be made public later today.

“The evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding,” the release says.


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Armstrong's lawyer calls doping case a 'publicity stunt'

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency case against cyclist Lance Armstrong is a mere publicity stunt that the anti-drugs regulator cannot back up with conclusive evidence, the seven-time Tour de France winner’s attorney wrote in a letter to the agency today.

“USADA is still trying to create evidence and put it in the file,” attorney Tim Herman wrote. “Armstrong has been selectively singled out, prosecuted and treated differently than any other athlete, no doubt so that USADA can cash in on the publicity.”

Agency spokeswoman Annie Skinner brushed aside the critique.

“We are happy to let the evidence speak for itself,” she said in an email to California Watch.

In February, the U.S. attorney’s office abandoned its 20-month investigation into allegations that Armstrong had led a doping ring involving banned steroids and blood transfusions.

The anti-doping agency's CEO, Travis Tygart, followed up with his own investigation, ultimately recommending that Armstrong be banned from professional cycling for life and have his tour titles yanked. Armstrong’s legal team launched a failed challenge to the agency’s jurisdiction in a federal court in Austin, Texas.

This week, the agency is expected to release the doping-world equivalent of a legal complaint – known as a “reasoned decision” – containing evidence of what the agency claims was a 14-year doping conspiracy.


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Armstrong's blood data shows signs of doping, expert says

Cyclist Lance Armstrong’s recent fall from grace has been portrayed in books and news accounts as a thriller featuring teammate betrayals, motorcycle drug couriers and secret blood transfusions.

But as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency prepares to release an evidence dossier detailing its reasons for stripping the cycling star of seven Tour de France titles, the most compelling evidence might be found in dry data drawn from tests of Armstrong’s blood chemistry, a world-renowned doping expert says.

Michael Ashenden, an Australian scientist who helped create a test for the blood-doping substance EPO, told California Watch that an analysis of blood samples drawn in 2009, contained in an earlier court filing, suggests that Armstrong was recklessly using banned doping methods in an effort to win the Tour de France one more time. He finished third that year.

The tipoff, Ashenden said in an interview and follow-up email, is found in three weeks’ worth of telltale readings in Armstrong’s so-called “biological passport,” a log of blood tests sometimes used as evidence in cheating probes.

The readings show that during the race, Armstrong’s body produced fewer young blood cells than would be expected, Ashenden said. That suggests his system was adapting to the presence of an extra volume of blood that had been re-infused – and that suggests cheating, Ashenden said.

“Suppressed red blood cell production is a classic signature associated with blood doping,” he wrote. “The body reacts to the presence of excess red cells in circulation by suppressing the bone marrow’s production of new cells.”


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Drug use found in 23% of fatal crashes

Nearly one-quarter of California drivers killed in car crashes last year had drugs in their system, according to a federal report released yesterday.

Of the 1,678 fatally injured drivers in California last year, 23 percent tested positive for drugs. Nationwide, drugs were found in nearly 4,000 drivers – 18 percent of those killed. That's up from 13 percent in 2005. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said its analysis raises concerns that more drivers are getting behind the wheel with drugs in their system. But the agency cautioned that the presence of drugs did not indicate whether drugs impaired drivers or caused the crashes.

The findings highlight a problem safety officials are just beginning to understand. Drug-testing techniques and procedures vary widely. Many fatally injured drivers are not tested. 

Drugs in the analysis include both illegal substances and over-the-counter and prescription medications. Some drugs such as alcohol, nicotine and aspirin are excluded.

On average, 63 percent of U.S. drivers were tested after fatal car crashes last year. California tested nearly 89 percent of drivers in these cases. Among those tested in the state, 60 percent were found to have no drugs in their system, while the results of 5 percent tested were unknown.

In California, the decision to test a deceased driver for drugs is up to the local coroner. State law requires blood and urine samples be taken to determine only alcohol content.

New book exposes dorm room drug dealers

Just when you thought you’d learned everything about drug dealing from "The Wire," a new academic book takes a deep look off the radar at a predominantly white, middle-class, college drug-dealing network.

I haven’t read “Dorm Room Dealers” – a $50 academic tome – but I did read the introduction posted online after seeing a review in the most recent issue of Drug War Chronicle.

The authors, professors A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold, point out that while the war on drugs has had disproportionate consequences for poor and minority populations, the college dealers they researched have operated without much scrutiny from university officials or law enforcement.

Many of the dealers they shadowed have since found post-college success as legitimate white-collar workers, the authors said.

Filed under: Higher Ed, Daily Report
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