Testing for sports doping

The Olympics are only just beginning but stories of doping have been filling the papers for months. So what's the science behind the test?
02 August 2016

Interview with 

Kerry Parker, Select Science


Sticking with our Olympic theme, the headlines have been hogged by Russia Athletenarrowly avoiding a blanket ban after several athletes were found to have taken performance-enhancing drugs. But how do organisations like WADA - the world anti-doping agency, test for these substances? Georgia Mills spoke with Kerry Parker, who's the editor in chief of the website Select Science; she's recently been to see the testing labs in Rio...

Kerry - You're going to several rooms; firstly where they bring in the samples. So what happens is urine or blood samples are collected from athletes in the field, they're couriered in, they're given unique codes so nobody in the laboratory can actually know which athlete has which sample, and then those samples are processed.

There's an A and B sample. So the A sample is processed and the B sample's always kept closed, so that's a secondary sample that's only opened in the future if there needs to be some retesting. So what happens next is the samples are processed and they go through different types of analytical procedures and, essentially, what they're doing is they're looking for banned substances or substances that look like those banned substance. They're also looking at unusual metabolomics or unusual results in the test as well.

The Rio laboratory I've just visited recently was absolutely amazing. They had a huge room full of instruments and it's a very unusual set up compared to any other kind of laboratory you'll find anywhere in the world. They're going to be processing over 6,000 samples in about three weeks over the Olympics; that's about 300 to 400 per day and they have to get those results out within 24 hours. Years of preparation go into setting up the equipment, training the staff to run a 24 hour lab.

Georgia - In terms of actually testing for these substances, what do they do - do they sort of run it in a machine or look at it under the microscope?

Kerry - Generally, they're doing analytical tests; they're looking for particular compounds in say a blood or urine sample. You might use a science called 'chromatography' and 'mass spectrometry.' This will help firstly separate molecules in a sample like urine and then once those molecules are separated, that science will be able to identify what those molecules are by their weight. It's a very, very accurate type of science, and from that report the scientist can see if particular molecules are present or not in that sample at a very, very low level of detection.

And so what's really interesting about this whole world or doping is that those athletes that do decide to dope, they may be utilising new designer drugs or substances every year.  So part of the work of this laboratory is not just to look at what's been banned but also look at are there any other new drugs that are being utilised at this time.

Georgia - There seems to be a lot in the news about doping, especially recently I guess with the Olympics coming up, but is it going up?

Kerry - I don't know that we can say that. All we can say is that the level of detection is increasing, the scientists can detect at a much better level, and they can also now look forward and look back as well. So I think the science is absolutely there, and the detection is there. Perhaps that's why we're hearing it more in the news and, obviously, around the olympics these stories are always really important, and we mustn't forget that athletes are tested all the time actually. It's not just around these games, they are often tested in between competitions as well. Many of them have what's known as the 'athlete biological passports'. They're collecting data and recording and recording data over time as well. So I think, when the Olympics comes round it's a topic that everyone's interested in, but it's something that's happening in the background all the time in athletics and sport.


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