Brain and Body

Here's the Science Behind the Drug That Caused Maria Sharapova to Fail Her Drug Test

March 14, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Maria Sharapova
Photo credit: Valentina Alemmano/wikimedia (CC by SA 2.0)

The Soviet Union used it back in the 1980s to try and create “super soldiers.”

Famous tennis player Maria Sharapova broke headlines around the world after revealing in a press conference that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open.

However, unlike other shocking cases of high-profile athletes who were caught doping up, Sharapova had been legally taking the drug, meldonium, since 2006 and claims she wasn’t aware that it was recently added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released an updated list of banned substances in January 2016, and Sharapova admits that she neglected to read the list.

"I made a huge mistake," she said at the press conference.

SEE ALSO: This is How Long Different Drugs Actually Stay in Your System

Shortly after, Sharapova’s longtime sponsor Nike released a statement that it was “saddened and surprised” by the news, and it suspended its relationship with the tennis star while the investigation continues.

So, what is meldonium and what does it actually do?

Meldonium, also known as Mildronate, was developed as a treatment for a condition called ischemia, which results from inadequate blood flow to bodily organs and can cause permanent damage.

Grindex, the Latvian pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug, says meldonium protects against tissue damage in patients with chronic heart failure, disorders of brain circulation, and angina pectoris, which is when patients experience chest pain caused by heart disease.

However, here’s the kicker: Grindex says the drug improves physical capacity and mental function in both ischemic and healthy people, so that’s why the WADA decided to add the drug to the list of banned substances among professional athletes.

A study published in 2015 showed that meldonium can enhance the endurance of athletes by increasing oxygen uptake.

WIRED reports that the drug was even trialled in the Soviet Union back in the 1980s in order to create “super soldiers” who could operate in high-altitude, low-oxygen environments due to the drug’s performance-enhancing effects.

Although Sharapova’s case has garnered worldwide attention, The New York Times reports that she is not alone — over 60 athletes, including world champions and Olympic medalists, have already tested positive for meldonium since the beginning of 2016.

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