MOSCOW -- The Latvian scientist who developed the drug made famous this week by tennis megastar Maria Sharapova's admission that she used it, despite a new ban by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), says he doesn't think taking Mildronate, also known as meldonium, should be construed as "doping."
Ivars Kalvins defended athletes' use of the drug, which increases blood flow to the heart, arguing it does not enhance performance but rather reduces fears of heart attack or other cardiological problems when athletes push their bodies to the limit.
"Mildronate is not doping in the correct sense of the word," Kalvins told RFE/RL's Russian Service on March 9, two days after Sharapova said she'd used the drug based on a recommendation from her family doctor and suggested it was connected to "irregular EKG results" and "signs of diabetes." A former teen phenom and the highest-paid women's tennis player in history, the 28-year-old Russian faces possible bans from the sport and the loss of millions of dollars in sponsorships.
Kalvins's view contradicts that of WADA, which monitored the drug through 2015 and said in a statement on March 7 that there is "evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance."
Popular in the former Soviet Union as a treatment for heart conditions but also widely available and said to be used for decades by soldiers and top athletes, meldonium (its medicinal name is Mildronate) has also reportedly turned up in drug tests of other Russian athletes since the January 1 ban went into effect.
There is increasing anecdotal evidence of its popularity in sports.
Kirovs Lipmans, the owner and chairman of Grindeks, the Latvian manufacturer of the drug, said in 2011 that meldonium is "very popular among athletes" and is a staple among Russian and Latvian ice-hockey players.
The drug was registered in 1984 and, Kalvins said, remains one of "most popular" cardiovascular drug treatments in the former Soviet Union. Kalvins put its popularity down to two factors: its lack of "almost any side effects" and what he described as unique properties that allow it to "help millions to survive in conditions when their hearts should die."
WATCH: Sharapova Says She Failed Drug Test At Australian Open
Kalvins described to RFE/RL how he stumbled across the formula for the drug, registered in 1984, while trying to find a use for old Soviet rocket fuel that needed to be recycled.
"I had the idea to make a compound out of [the rocket fuel] that we could add without problem as a food supplement for animals," he said. "But then we decided that it was showing good results in experiments on animals, and it was worth not only occupying ourselves with agriculture but also thinking of people."
Echoing comments from Grindeks, Kalvins argued that the drug does not constitute doping.
"Mildronate allows athletes to train under maximum strain," he said. "Doping is when you give one of two equally trained people a drug and he suddenly runs faster than the other one whom you didn't give it to. Testosterone and produced steroids, so-called anabolic hormones...and other manipulations that allow you to increase your ability to work -- this is doping."
But that's not how meldonium works, he said.
"Athletes can train without being afraid that if they inadvertently overstep their limit, they will end up in hospital with a heart attack or die on the field. Top class athletes must be able to work at a capacity beyond their limits," Kalvins said.
Grindeks has said a normal course of treatment with the drug might last four to six weeks.
The drug is available over the counter in parts of the former Soviet Union, but it is not licensed across Europe or by U.S. authorities.
Kalvins told RFE/RL that the rights to sell the drug in the West were bought by a company that sought to prevent its sale in the West following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He suggested he was duped into agreeing to the terms.
Saving Soldiers In Afghanistan
Kalvins said the drug was not manufactured specifically for the Soviet Defense Ministry, which was in the midst of its 1979-89 military campaign in Afghanistan, but that the ministry quickly became interested in the drug.
"As the mechanism consisted in optimizing the use of oxygen, naturally the army was the first to take an interest," Kalvin said. "Soldiers were serving not only in valleys but also in the mountains, where there was a constant shortage of oxygen."
He said the drug helped save soldiers' lives.
"In Afghanistan, it turned out that really if soldiers sent on assignments to the mountains received Mildronate, then they returned; and if they didn't receive it, not all of them returned."