A group of US scientists has developed a new drug detection method to test doping of performance-enhancing drugs.
The research, presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, describes how an analytical technique can be used to detect current sport doping substances and may be useful at finding future ‘designer’ compounds before they’re widely known about or used.
“As quickly as we develop methods to look for performance-enhancing drugs, clandestine labs develop new substances that give athletes a competitive advantage,” says Dr Christopher Chouinard, from Florida Institute of technology and lead researcher on the project.
The current common method of urine testing involves gas or liquid chromatography, which separates individual substances for closer examination, and mass spectrometry, which breaks apart and weighs molecules for identification.
Synthetic performance-enhancing drugs are often very similar to steroid molecules found naturally in the body, so it can be very difficult to detect them with this method. Testers need to know which specific drugs to look for, which means that new substances can evade traditional tests.
Instead of chromatography, Chouinard’s team uses ion mobility spectrometry in addition to mass spectrometry. This technique is better at separating very similar molecules, and the team further improved it by treating the samples with other chemicals beforehand.
The researchers have used their new technique to successfully identify half of the substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), with detection limits of below one nanogram per millilitre. They also believe they can use the method to find synthetic substances currently unknown to WADA.
“If we can develop methods to identify any theoretical steroids in the future, we could dramatically reduce doping because we would be able to detect these new species immediately, without the lag time that’s been associated with anti-doping testing over the last 40 years,” says Chouinard.
The tests are fast and simple, but the machinery required to run ion mobility spectrometry can cost up to US $1 million. Chouinard hopes that the higher sensitivity of the test will persuade more labs to invest in the technology.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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