Science Behind Scandal: 5 facts you didn’t know about peptides

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From their use in the amateur athlete through to AFL Team Captain, the new generations of performance and image enhancing peptides have rapidly grown in familiarity over recent months.  As the “drugs in sports” debate continues, we take one step back from the scandal to answer the core questions and correct the common misconceptions about peptides and their general use in Australia.

An Introduction to Peptides

Essentially, peptides are just very short proteins. Unlike the majority of proteins that provide the building blocks for cells or get chewed up for energy, a select few of these peptides actually “communicate” with cells and act as hormones.

Peptide hormones, like all other hormones, travel through the blood stream to all corners of the body. Many peptides are inert and do practically nothing; some interact with very specific tissues in the body (skin, brain etc.) and only a small handful have metabolic, image and/or performance enhancing effects.

A popular group known as growth hormone releasing peptides (or GHRPs) are examples of hormones that tell the body to produce more natural growth hormone, helping men and women to essentially gain muscle and lose fat. Different variations of peptide hormones have theoretical side-effects (e.g. increased appetite) but very few have been legitimately researched in any form of human clinical trial.

According to a recent report by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC), the market for performance and image enhancing drugs (PIEDs) in Australia is large and diverse extending across a broad cross-section of the community.

With this widespread use of PIEDs across Australia, it’s important that some very key questions are asked and addressed. Below are the most common incorrectly answered questions:

  1. Are Peptides “Steroids”?

Regardless of what you may have heard in the locker room, peptides are not steroids. Peptides are made up of amino acids just like any other protein. Steroids (anabolic/contraceptive/anti-inflammatory) are hormones too but it’s practically just a coincidence that a very small group of peptides causes anabolic effects like “steroids” do. The associated risk in peptide therapies is theorised to be much lower than that of testosterone-derived (anabolic) steroids however no injections are ever without risk.

  1. Are Peptides illegal?

Although you won’t find many peptide hormones on the TGA’s current Poisons Schedule (where steroids and other illicit drugs of abuse are listed) peptides are slowly being added to this growing list with each periodical instalment. Depending on where they eventually land on the list, some are prohibited to be sold without prescription whilst others are illegal to have in possession at all.

Up until early February this year, peptide hormones and other performance-enhancing drugs were freely available to anyone with an internet connection and a credit card. The TGA has now moved to prevent the supply of these hormones online without a prescription.

Peptide use in sports is another issue altogether. Most peptide hormones have been explicitly blacklisted by the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) and are absolutely prohibited in numerous sporting codes. This is where the media has focused their attention and why a dark shadow has been cast across many sports both in Australia and internationally.

  1. Are all Peptides Performance-Enhancing Drugs?

Some peptide hormones can improve athletic performance. Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) can take many forms. Any compound which improves an athlete’s ability to outperform his or her competitors in an unfair manner technically falls under this umbrella term. A weight-loss drug can help a fighter unfairly improve body composition before weigh-in just like stimulants can improve a sprinter’s split.

Not all peptide hormones interact with muscles or metabolism in a way that would improve athletic performance. Some peptides communicate solely with other tissues. As an example, Melanotan is a peptide which causes the skin to produce more pigment and is not a drug likely to improve athletic prowess.

  1. Are Peptides Used in Medicine?

Of the better understood peptide variants, one growth hormone related peptide – AOD-9604 – has recently found itself injected into the mainstream media – as well as Brownlow Medallist Jobe Watson according to his recent admission. AOD-9604 was developed by researchers to combat obesity by increasing metabolic breakdown of stored fats and is likely to possess therapeutic potential in Australia’s obesity epidemic.

In response to the enormous threat presented by type-II diabetes in the Middle East, pipe-lined peptide products were revealed at the International Congress in Aesthetic and Anti-ageing Medicine (ICAAM) in Dubai last year. These peptide hormones are being developed not only to improve body composition but to restore insulin sensitivity – the key pathology implicated in the onset of type-II diabetes.

  1. Are Peptides Safe?

Although peptides are still accessible through countless “here-one-minute, gone-the-next” online stores, there are two serious issues that potentially endanger those entrusting these sites: 1) According to a presentation by the TGA, many of the under-researched peptides being sold online have the potential to cause severe immune reactions and; 2) although some companies may be producing these products in the proper facilities, there are no guarantees or regulating bodies that ensure the products found online are legitimate, safe and free from bacterial contamination.

Legitimate pharmaceutical-grade peptides with proven efficacy and safety are slowly making their way to Australian pharmacies as a result of thorough clinical trials. However, it’s more than likely that your physician will always be the one to have the final say as to whether the potential benefits of these drugs outweighs the potential risks.



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