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Thousand Times Sensitivity Increase for Doping Drugs Testing

Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014
Last Updated: Thursday, March 20, 2014
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Method developed by UT Arlington researchers can be up to 1,000 times more sensitive than many current tests.

A UT Arlington team lead by Dr. Daniel W. Armstrong has come up with a new, more sensitive test for evidence of performance enhancing drugs.

Daniel W. Armstrong, who holds the UT Arlington Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry, and Hongyue Guo, a graduate student in Armstrong’s lab, presented the research this week at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Dallas.

“How much of a drug someone took or how long ago they took it are beyond the analyst’s control. The only thing you can control is how sensitive your method is,” Armstrong said. “Our goal is to develop ultra-sensitive methods that will extend the window of detection, and we may have developed one of the most sensitive methods in the world.” 

According to the American Chemical Society, the new strategy is a simple variation on a common testing technique called mass spectrometry, which the International Olympic Committee, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and others routinely use to ensure athletes are “clean.”

Mass spectrometry separates compounds by mass, or weight, allowing scientists to determine the component parts of a mixture. In the case of performance enhancing drugs, technicians use the method to find the bits left over in blood, urine or other body fluids after the body breaks the substances down.

Because some of the pieces, or metabolites, are small and have a negative charge, they may not produce a signal strong enough for the instrument to detect, Armstrong explained – especially in the case of stimulants, which the body rapidly eliminates. Stimulants like amphetamine, or “speed,” increase alertness and reduce an athlete’s sense of fatigue.

The method Armstrong’s lab has pioneered is called paired ion electrospray ionization (PIESI, pronounced “PIE-zee”). It gathers several of those drug bits together, making them more obvious to the detector. The new method does not require additional equipment for testing labs, only the addition of a chemical the Armstrong team designed which is now commercially available and relatively inexpensive, Guo said.

“Dr. Armstrong’s pioneering methods for improving chemical separations have been honored with a long list of national and international awards, including his being named a fellow of the American Chemical Society,” said Carolyn Cason, vice president for research at UT Arlington. “Equally impressive is his continual quest to apply those principals to issues that face society and to involve the students he mentors in those explorations. This work is an example of the impressive results that stem from those endeavors.”

The UT Arlington team explained their research at a news conference in Dallas Wednesday. Video from that event is available online at

Armstrong joined UT Arlington in 2006 and is the author of more than 550 scientific publications, including 29 book chapters, and holds 23 U.S. and international patents. During this week’s conference, he is also being honored with the ACS Award in Separation Science and Technology, which is sponsored by Waters Corp.

Armstrong received the ACS Award for Chromatography in 1999 and has also won the 1998 ACS Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach, as well as numerous other awards. Last year, he was named to the 2013 class of ACS Fellows.

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