Amidst the frenzy and excitement of the 2016 Summer Olympics, it is important to reflect on the game’s purpose; to display the dedication and talent of the world’s greatest athletes. The records set in the coming days in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will define the upper reaches of what is humanly possible. They will stand as a reminder of the extreme power and fitness that can be achieved through hard work and self-mastery.

However, despite their seemingly superhuman capabilities, Olympic athletes are on par with the average person in at least one regard: their susceptibility to having asthma. A recent data study by the University of Western Australia revealed that eight percent of Olympic athletes live with asthma, the same percentage as the United States public. In fact, asthma is the most common chronic illness among Olympic athletes, affecting one in twelve competitors. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 17 percent of cyclists and 19 percent of swimmers were diagnosed with asthma. These asthmatic athletes went on to win 29 and 33 percent of the medals in those sports, respectively. At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, 700 of approximately 10,000 competing athletes had confirmed asthma diagnoses and, surprisingly, they were almost twice as likely to win a medal as their non-asthmatic peers. If trends from past Olympic Games continue, there may be similar statistics in Rio.

Asthma Medication and Animal Research

Molecular structure of isoproterenol, the first IBA to be discovered

Molecular structure of isoproterenol, the first IBA to be discovered

The main class of medications used to treat asthma are beta2 adrenoceptor agonists, or IBAs. The first IBA was called isoproterenol and was discovered in the 1940s following research with cats and frogs, and it has since been continually modified to minimize side effects, specify selectivity, and lengthen duration of effectiveness. Animal research with guinea pigs, rabbits, and rats has been critical to accomplishing these goals, as well as to the development of inhalers in the 1960s, which enabled people to take their medicines orally. However, there is still some distance to go in terms of effectively treating asthma, including refining drug administration methods, perfecting dosage concentration, and further lessening adverse side effects. And animal research continues to play a role in the development of better medications for people living with asthma.

Why Do Asthmatic Olympic Athletes Tend to Perform Better?

An asthma inhaler, developed through animal research with guinea pigs

An asthma inhaler, developed through animal research with guinea pigs

Until recently, the reigning theory was that IBAs enhanced sports performance by relaxing the smooth muscle of the throat and lungs, helping the heart work more efficiently. Following a significant increase in usage between 1996 and 2000, IBAs were banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2001 as a safeguard to protect athletes’ health. After determining that asthmatic athletes outperformed their peers from 2002 to 2010, they were also banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 2010. The WADA has since revised its ruling to exempt the use of the IBAs albuterol and formoterol under certain dosage limits. Athletes with confirmed diagnoses and official Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) forms are permitted to use certain IBAs as recommended by a doctor.

A recent study with undergraduate students at the University of British Columbia, however, has undermined the theory of asthma drugs enhancing physical performance. Researchers claim that the “asthmatic advantage” of athletes is due to a refractory period following asthma attacks that prevents another attack from occurring. While this may seem counterintuitive, intense warmups can trigger this response, thus preventing asthma attacks and naturally enhancing lung and heart effectiveness during actual competition.

New Knowledge Helps Everyone with Asthma

Animal research carries forth a torch for the biomedical community, shedding light on the mysteries of disease and medicine.

Animal research carries forth a torch for the biomedical community, shedding light on the mysteries of disease and medicine.

While this information definitely helps professional athletes with asthma to better their performance, perhaps more importantly, it will also assist the 330 million people who suffer from asthma worldwide, including 24 million adults and children in the United States. Determining the cause of this refractory period could be the key to understanding why asthma attacks occur. With this knowledge, researchers could potentially prevent attacks by developing a drug that enacts a similar response for a longer period of time. Further research will be necessary, with animal research being central to understanding and developing new treatment methods for this chronic inflammatory disease.

While nearly everyone will be cheering for their favorite athletes in the coming weeks, animal research deserves a round of applause, too. Whether they took ibuprofen for pain relief while training or currently use IBAs to treat chronic asthma, the victory of many athletes will be in some way thanks to products of animal research. As such, some might say animal research has already won a gold medal for its victories in the race against disease.

 

 

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