The Seven stands ready in The Boys
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Credit: Amazon Studios

Science Behind the Fiction: Can any PED get even superheroes jacked, like in The Boys?

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Jul 31, 2019

Garth Ennis is one of those rare rock star names in the comics industry. If there were a Mt. Rushmore for comics writers, Ennis would certainly be in the running for a slot on the rock. Well known for his work on such beloved series' as Hellblazer and Punisher, as well as for creating Preacher, it was only a matter of time until his work was translated to screen.

Following the success and popularity of the Preacher television series on AMC, Ennis' catalog became fertile ground for picking. The Boys, a new series from Amazon based on Ennis' twisted comics series of the same name, puts viewers in a world wherein heroes are commonplace. Not only do they exist in untold numbers, but they have also been commercialized, corporatized, and are beloved by the masses.

**SPOILER WARNING: There are spoilers for The Boys Season 1 below.**

The real heroes, though, the titular Boys, aren't heroes at all — they're regular people intent on exposing heroes for the villains they really are, then bringing them down. They're easy to root for, the Boys, as it's made clear early on that the "heroic" Seven are not what they seem to be. Starlight (Erin Moriarty) aside, the Seven showcases the corruption inherent to absolute power, enhanced because that power is super. We also see how addictive power can be, and the lengths to which people will go in order to hold onto it.

Enter Compound V, first introduced in the series as a rumor held over the head of the Vought corporation — the company responsible for bankrolling and marketing the Seven — in hopes of driving down superhero-purchasing prices for a certain city. The blackmail works and the cost of superhero services drops. The next time we see Compound V, it's on the eve of a race to crown the world's fastest man. A-Train's title is at risk and, with it, his position in the Seven. He needs an edge, just a little, to ensure he holds onto the crown. The nature of Compound V becomes clear: It's a performance enhancer for supers.

An interesting concept. How might such a thing work?

 

HOW PERFORMANCE ENHANCERS WORK

Scandals in baseball and cycling involving performance-enhancing drugs have made international news and usage has become so ubiquitous that testing at high-level athletic competitions has become the status quo.

There are a variety of performance-enhancing drugs being used by athletes at both the amateur and professional levels — in fact, 3.3 percent of 9th to 12th graders admit to using steroids in the past — including various steroids and hormones. But they all have one thing in common: They manipulate existing natural processes in the body to increase muscle growth.

There are, of course, perfectly legitimate reasons a person might use various steroids (a steroid is any compound with 17 carbon atoms arranged in four rings) or hormones. They occur naturally in the body and are common ingredients in birth control and asthma inhalers. Additionally, an individual might be undergoing various bodily transitions which might be assisted by the use of hormones the body otherwise wouldn't produce at the desired level. What's important is to use these medicines under the direction of a physician who understands the effects and potential consequences.

When used, anabolic steroids or human growth hormone increases muscle growth by stimulating cells to create proteins.

 

Over the long term, this can result in a measurable increase in muscle production but that's not all that happens. Use of anabolic steroids can also result in high blood pressure, thickening of heart valves, decreased fertility, and increased risk of heart disease — just to name a few side effects. Seems like a heavy price to pay for a faster mile or a blue ribbon at the county fair.

WHAT ELSE IS NEW?

"Performance enhancer" isn't just a synonym for steroids; there are a number of different substances available to athletes (if you know where to look) and, as do all illegal arenas, the game is changing all the time.

Blood doping — the removal of blood from the body to be stored and returned to the body at a later time — increases the number of red blood cells available for carrying oxygen to your other cells, but using erythropoietin accomplishes the same thing without all the bloody back and forth. As a result, the increased red blood cell production means you can train harder and longer before running out of steam. It also means your blood might get so thick you have a stroke.

Bromantane reached public awareness during the '96 Olympics when Russian athletes tested positive for it. Originally conceived by the Russian government for use by soldiers and cosmonauts, bromantane is said to increase performance and mask the usage of other drugs, namely steroids. Not only does it pump you up while hiding the use of other substances, but bromantane also has the added benefit of sounding like a drug named by Martin Shkreli during his fraternity days.

But all of the pills, creams, and injections might soon be a thing of the past as cheating at sports takes its first step into the future with gene doping.

Over the last half-century, new drug therapies would be developed for clinical use, and once word got out, the athletic community would almost immediately see a way to abuse it to enhance performance. Gene doping is no different. Gene therapy is still in its infancy but there has been some success in treating some degenerative diseases.

 

After all, if gene therapy can fix something that's broken, it can also improve something that's not, right? Maybe. Probably. But!

Sure, manipulation of genes has the potential to give you the sweet bod you've always dreamed of, but we still don't yet totally understand exactly how genes work. The potential for unintended side effects is incalculable.

According to a paper in the journal Nature, a study was conducted in which researchers carried out gene therapy on a group of macaque monkeys. Their intent was to impact the EPO gene, which is responsible for red blood cell production. Instead, the animals' blood thickened into a "deadly sludge" and the researchers had to regularly pull blood out of them just to prevent them from dying. Eventually, their blood returned to normal. For a minute. Then it went the other way and the animals became anemic. According to that same paper, "The field of gene therapy, and by extension, gene doping, is full of unpredictable and dangerous results like this, which is why Sweeney, Evans, and other researchers who have identified DNA targets that could potentially be exploited for gene doping are the first to emphasize that the research is still at only an experimental stage."

So, you might want to think twice before you go fiddling with your DNA.

COMPOUND V

Within the world of The Boys, V, in its various forms, is capable of granting powers temporarily, or permanently, to non-powered individuals. It can also enhance the powers of a super.

The symptoms of Compound V can't be compared to any one earthly substance. It's likely, just as with performance enhancers in the real world, that a myriad of different substances have all fallen under a common label. Sort of like how all bandages are "Band-Aids" and all cotton swabs are "Q-tips," all super performance enhancers in The Boys are "V."

In reality, we're probably dealing with some combination of gene doping (which results in the granting of powers to ordinary humans) and some kind of temporary hormonal boost, perhaps by the use of a synthetic hormone present only in the body of supers.

The world presented to us in The Boys is a dark reflection of our own world, one wherein humans have been granted wonderful abilities and decided to use them almost exclusively for ill. Given our current relationship with above-average ability, the behavior of the characters doesn't seem far off the mark.

The Boys is streaming on Amazon now.

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