Doctor publishes sports thriller involving use of DNA doping


Harvey Shapiro

By Kathy Day

Harvey Shapiro has found a new way to feed his workaholic personality – writing a book.

The 71-year-old recently published “Morphed.” He calls it a “sports thriller,” revolving around the use of DNA doping in sport and the use of human performance enhancement technologies in daily living.

He uses his own experiences – as a physician, a cyclist, a former medical correspondent for NBCSanDiego and a volunteer doping control officer for the 2002 Winter Olympics – to craft the fictional account that asks “How far are athletes or individuals willing to go to win, even to the point of altering their own DNA?”

Eric Heiden, the Olympic gold medalist who is now an orthopedic surgeon, writes in the liner notes that “DNA manipulation — a likely next step in performance enhancement — amps up the health issues for all of us. It pits parents against their kids who emulate their idol athletes and tempts us with prospects of its fountain of youth effects. Shapiro opens the doors on the locker room’s inner sanctum where sports intermingle with big business and science.”

Shapiro’s book goes to places that sound familiar from recent sports news – athletes using steroids, an anti-doping doctor, the Tour de France and a “muscle-altering DNA substance that will not only pass through the anti-doping system but can also reduce the effects of aging.”

One of his characters – and there are many “real characters,” he says – is an aging cyclist who is breaking Lance Armstrong’s records.

Shapiro, who timed the release of his self-published work to coincide with the Summer Olympics in London, says he came up with the concept for the story after volunteering as a doping control officer at the Olympics.

He lives half of the year – summers and winters – in Park City, Utah, which is where he was when a nurse encouraged him to join the anti-doping effort.

“I spent two years training (for the volunteer assignment), sneaking up on people and saying ‘Aha,’ it’s time for your test,” he said. As a physician, he ran a testing station where athletes had to report at the end of their events.

“I started thinking, if somebody wanted to cheat, how would they do it,” he added. “They could try to corrupt me, but that wouldn’t work.”

As the ideas ran through his head, he started researching substance abuse in elite sports.

In 2004, Shapiro was the California Society of Anesthesiologists’ Forrest M. Leffingwell Memorial lecturer and delivered a talk on just that subject.

In introducing him, the editor of the association’s bulletin called him “one of the most prominent patriarchs of neuroanesthesia.” He also noted that he had “ventured well outside its boundaries to lend his creative intellect to more distant and, often, surprisingly adventuresome areas.”

In that lecture, Shaprio said, “I don’t believe that most sport fans are upset enough (about doping) to respond by turning off their TV sets or staying away from the professional stadiums and arenas. Until they do so, fans are simply fanning the fire and doping is here to stay.”

That thought underlies the storyline of “Morphed.”

“Almost every time, the technology developed to help patients makes it onto the field as quickly as it gets into the doctor’s office,” he said in a recent interview. “Along comes the opportunity to win and not get caught … some do it without regard to their personal health.”

As a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, Shapiro had studied the effects of anesthesia on brain metabolism and blood flow. While a resident, he was the first to utilize a medically-induced coma to control intracranial pressure during neurosurgery.

Because he had done a neurosurgery residence at the University of Washington and worked as a fellow for two years at the National Institutes of Health Division of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, he had an understanding of both fields that gave him a different perspective on what was occurring in the injured brain.

“With CT scans, we had the ability to measure pressure inside the head that we didn’t have four or five years before,” he said, adding that the new technology facilitates the ability to change the way neurosurgery is done.

In 1976, he joined the faculty at UCSD, focusing his lab and clinical work on acute brain injury. He became anesthesiology department chair in 1986 and dean of clinical affairs before retiring in 1996.

In 1997, his first book,“Managed Care Beware: 5 Steps You Need to Know to Survive HMO’s and Get the Care You Need,” was published by Dove Books.

Retirement hasn’t let him slow down. He skis as often as he can, still cycles regularly, traveling frequently on bike trips to faraway places – including ahead of the Tour de France where he actually witnessed what he believes was a team car providing a doping substance to a rider.

Growing up in Philadelphia, he said, his “bicycle took me everywhere.”

While he no longer rides competitively, the 71-year-old, who also participated in triathlons, learned from experience about the effects of high-altitude training.

While in Park City, his red blood cell count rises, akin to what happens with blood doping. It takes about three weeks, he said, for the level to drop, which coincides with him moving back in the pack of riders he trains with.

It’s the same as blood-doping or using EPO (erythropoietin which controls red blood cell production), he said, adding, “But I’m legal because I live there.”

He says he knows too many stories about athletes who are “dumb, destitute and desperate” who have resorted to steroid use and ended up on the wrong side of their drug tests.

He’s also aware of the impacts on non-athletes and teens who want to be bigger and stronger.

“Adults can make decisions … It’s my last Olympics so if I take steroids for four years, it won’t affect my life,” he said, but kids’ shouldn’t be making those calls.

He says he’s hopeful his book might help educate the non-sports book reader who picks up his book. While it is fiction, it’s based on his observations and research.

It uses sports to talk about our society, which Shapiro said “demands that these guys dope. No one would watch if there were no records broken and nobody wants to lose.”

He’s talked to people who have read his book, which took five years to write, and given it good reviews, he said, but he gets a little frustrated about the process of getting it published. He did it on his own, with the help of friends and family and a few technical advisors like Theodore Friedmann of UCSD, an authority on gene therapy who in 2011 was named chair of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

One of the challenges, he said, was getting a positive Kirkus review.

While authors pay for the reviews, they aren’t always necessarily positive, he noted. “They’re tough. You can either use it or not.”

He rolled the dice and Kirkus reviews called his book “a thrilling, nuanced drama that packs an informational and emotional punch.”