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Amphibians Assist Horses To Run Better

Illegal drug traced back to South American frog.

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As the world watches the start of the 2012 Olympics, with its renewed emphasis on testing to unmask drugs cheats, so there is a warning from the world of horse-racing, about just how ingenious those in search of winning at all costs can be, when pursuing their goal.

Recently, those in charge of racing in the USA were hearing rumors of a truly bizarre plot. Some trainers were said to have discovered the benefits of using an amazing painkilling compound that came from the skin of a South America frog.


Laboratories responsible for the routine testing of samples renewed their efforts to detect any possible use of this substance, which is reckoned to be 40 times more potent than morphine, although less addictive. It not only prevents the feeling of any pain, but induces a state of well-being, encouraging the horse to run even faster.

Refined Testing

A breakthrough in the testing process at Denver-based Industrial Laboratories provided the first definite evidence of the use of this chemical, known as dermorphin, after scientists there went back to the drawing board to create a more sensitive test for this opioid.

Potent chemicals in the skins of amphibians are of course well known, particularly in the case of poison dart frog species. Tribespeople in parts of Central and South America use these toxins, obtained and concentrated through the frog’s invertebrate prey, to tip their arrows and so improve their chances of hunting success.

In this case though, the frog in question was the waxy monkey leaf frog (Phyllomedusa sauvagei), a predominantly green species that originates from the Gran Chaco in southeast Bolivia, northwest Argentina and Paraguay. Once the testing method was refined, scientists discovered evidence of dermorphin in samples from over 30 horses.

The concerns of the racing authorities were reinforced by the fact that these horses had originated from four separate states. This suggested that the problem had been not only undetected but was also becoming quite widespread in the sport. 


The Source of the Drugs

It is not the first time that a substance obtained from reptiles and amphibians has been used in this way. Cobra venom had previously been employed as a nerve block, with a view to allowing horses with localized injuries to run through the pain barrier. Dermorphin is a much more potent chemical though, as it has more widespread effects in the body, actually affecting the horse’s mood.

The only good news behind this story is that scientists believe the frogs have been spared in the quest for this drug. Dr Steven Barker, who heads up Louisiana State University’s testing laboratory believes that it would have been artificially synthesized, rather than obtained from amphibians.

“There’s a lot out there, and that would be an awful lot of frogs that would have to be squeezed,” he told the New York Times, adding “There are a lot of unemployed chemists out there.”