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The Laboratory Technology Keeping Sport Clean

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Author bio: Lisa Thomas BS, MBA, serves as senior director, Clinical, Forensic, Toxicology Markets, Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry, for Thermo Fisher Scientific. As a former bench chemist, Lisa has moved quickly from research to industry. She has developed and globally marketed scientific solutions, medical devices, software, and professional services which span numerous markets.

Pressure to perform

Over the past few weeks, the eyes of the world have been on the Olympic and Paralympic athletes striving for gold in Rio. But it hasn’t just been the competitors in the spotlight – the fallout from the reported cheating at the Sochi games means anti-doping authorities are under huge pressure to catch those who disregard the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) mantra: play true.

With the range of available performance-enhancing drugs wider than ever before, it’s vital that the technology and infrastructure used to beat the cheats responds to the ever-changing methods used by competitors who go to extreme – and illegal – lengths to be “the best”.

Catch me if you can

Athletes are randomly tested throughout their sporting season and during major competitions. Blood, and more commonly urine samples, are tested against a list of over 500 identified prohibited substances, spanning 11 drug categories. With such a broad spectrum of banned drugs to test for, accredited laboratories are using approximately 20 different procedures to analyse aliquots of an athlete’s “A” sample.

Anabolic steroids, synthetic derivatives of testosterone that allow athletes to train harder and build muscle more rapidly, are among the most prevalent classes of performance-enhancing drugs. To address sensitivity, triple quadrupole gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and liquid chromatography mass spectroscopy (LC-MS) are routinely used to accurately quantify the body’s levels of testosterone (T) and epitestosterone (E) – a naturally occurring inactive stereoisomer of testosterone that does not affect performance. Testosterone administered externally does not affect epitestosterone levels, meaning T/E ratios can be used to identify doping. For most, a T/E ratio of 1-to-1 is normal, but WADA set their standardised T/E limit at 4-to-1 to account for natural variation. Athletes testing outside this limit are further evaluated using techniques like carbon isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) interfaced to GC or GC-MS systems, which is used to determine whether the testosterone present in urine is endogenous (natural) or exogenous (synthetically derived).

On top of their game

For a major sporting event like the Olympics, it’s not just the athletes who have to be on their ‘A game’. Handling over 6000 samples in just 10 days, the anti-doping laboratory also needs to be running at ultra-peak performance. 

Testosterone and other dopants can be detected using ultra-high resolution Orbitrap mass spectrometers, capable of screening for large numbers of drugs rapidly. By analysing the way molecules fragment, compound identities can be confirmed beyond reasonable doubt. Such instruments have become the gold standard for accurate mass analysis, and have been routinely used since 2004 to screen all incoming athlete samples for suspect compounds as well as specifically for banned peptide hormones, which increase the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. More recently, this technology has been used to test for substances like recombinant insulin, which slows down muscle degradation, and growth hormones that stimulate cell regeneration.

Laboratory information management systems (LIMS), such as Thermo Scientific SampleManager LIMS, are used to integrate the fleet of instruments required for testing, allowing processes to be automated and data to be stored in central repositories, like the Anti-Doping Administration & Management System(ADAMS). With athletes’ reputations on the line, such technology infrastructure maintains the highest levels of integrity and accountability while ensuring efficient access to data.

Keeping pace

Those using illegal methods will always try to be one step ahead of the authorities. It’s therefore essential that new ways of avoiding detection are dealt with quickly. Following lessons learned from the Sochi Winter Olympics, where sample-swapping is alleged to have taken place, human identification techniques traditionally used by forensic scientists are beginning to be used to match samples to athletes.

New strategies like the steroidal module of Athlete Biological Passports, introduced by WADA in 2014, monitor athletes’ physiological indicators over careers, making it easier to identify sudden biomarker fluctuations that may indicate use of performance-enhancing drugs. 
With the enduring appeal that performance-enhancing drugs hold for some athletes, the problem of doping in sport is unlikely to disappear any time soon. But with best-in-class technology and the latest testing methods, anti-doping laboratories will remain at the forefront of the fight to ensure global sport remains fair.