John Danaceau, Sports Medicine and Testing Lab, University of Utah
Chris - Someone whoís been working on ways to detect if people are cheating is John Danaceau. He joins us from the Sports Medicine and Testing Lab at the University of Utah. Hello John.
John - Hello, how are you?
Chris - Very well, thank you. Welcome to the Naked Scientists. What sorts of agents have you been looking at?
John - You just mentioned on the show some of the ones that are typically looked at. We test for things like anabolic steroids both natural and synthetic. We look for stimulants, we also look for masking agents which include things like diuretics which increase urine production Ė help people flush out their systems if theyíve taken something illegal. Also, for example, thereís a compound called finasteride. Itís included in the masking agents but itís a steroid and metabolism regulator. It decreases the production of a compound called DHT which produces some secondary side-effects of testosterone. Those are the main ones we look for. Our labís also working on developing a method to look at homologous blood transfusions, human growth hormone and things like that. Most of what youíve been talking about weíre working on in our laboratory right now.
Chris - The problem is if you take a drug which is something thatís naturally found in the body anyway how do you determine that person has taken it illicitly and itís not just that theyíve got very high levels of that anyway?
John - Thereís a couple of ways. For example, if you look at testosterone. You mentioned you couldnít get it from your diet but there are synthetically produced versions of testosterone. The big difference is that almost all synthetic hormones are produced from plant material. Plant material has a difference ratio of carbon-12, which is the most abundant carbon isotope, to carbon-13. Itís a naturally-occurring carbon isotope. One of the ways that you can test for that is using a carbon isotope ration mass-spectrometer. Itís a method weíre developing right now that most other anti-doping labs in the world have up and running. Weíre very close to getting our up and running right now.
Chris - What if I suddenly binged on testosterone to bulk up my muscles? What could you find and tell that Iíd definitely taken something from outside my body?
John - One of the things we look at for the CIR test. We take something called the testosterone to epi-testosterone ratio or the TE ratio. Epi-testosterone is an isomer of testosterone. It has the same chemical formula but itís arranged a little differently. It comes out at a different time in the mass-spectrometry system. Most people have a TE ratio of around 1:1. They have equal amounts. There have been studies shown that some people have a little higher and a little lower but the World Anti-Doping Agency has set the TE ratio at 4:1 as a cut-off. If you have four times more testosterone than epi-testosterone that raises alarm bells and we can take that sample and investigate a little further.
Chris - What would happen if I took both? You can make both and then the ratio would be normal.
John - Exactly. You can take both however there is an upper limit, a ceiling, for epi-testosterone where I believe itís 100-200ng per ml. You canít just take both because your epi-testosterone level will be high enough that will also trigger a presumptive positive finding. Again we can further investigate to see if youíve taken a synthetic version of testosterone or epi, for that matter. In addition to that you get some of the metabolites of testosterone. If we see those are elevated some of the naturals like DHT Ė thatís another way that weíll say, Ďah this sample looks a bit suspicious.í We always see a little bit of DHT but if we see a lot that could tell us they may have been taking something and further investigate.
Chris - What proportion of athletes do you think at some time in their career have probably used something?
John - Iím not sure Iím qualified to say exactly. We have positive findings around 2% of those that come through us. One of the cornerstones of our lab is the confidentiality of the athletes so I canít really say. Obviously I canít divulge what are the exact tests that we get or what are the results that we get. They are in the low, Iíd say, 1-2%. If you look on the WADAís website youíll see other laboratories have a similar percentage of positive findings. I should emphasise these are the positive findings found by the laboratory. Somebody could be doping, if theyíre very sophisticated, at a level where theyíve tried to get around the system. That happened with the THG that was developed at Balco.