Researchers at New Zealand’s University of Otago are hailing a “breakthrough” in the fight against drug cheats with a non-targeted test for designer steroids which they hope can be deployed in time for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Otago professor Alison Heather, who led the development of the test, said it would detect designer anabolic steroids before anti-doping authorities were aware they even existed.
“It’s a breakthrough in that it’s a non-targeted test, so we don’t need to know the structure for what we’re fishing for in order to be able to detect a designer anabolic steroid,” Heather said.
She first considered developing the test in 2004 when she started researching the use of tetrohydogestrinone, the drug developed by the BALCO laboratory in San Francisco, nicknamed “The Clear,” Heather said.
American sprinter Marion Jones was one of many high-profile athletes who ultimately admitted to using it.
Heather said that the drug had been used by athletes for about seven years before testers were even aware it existed.
“We called it a designer steroid because it had a structure that nobody knew about,” she said.
“If nobody knows about it, there’s no fingerprint for mass spectrometry, so it goes undetected. Since then I was thinking that we need a non-targeted test,” she said.
The new test did not search for specific markers, but focused on detecting changes at the cellular level.
“All anabolic steroids ... activate a common pathway inside the cell, so I have exploited that pathway to build the test,” Heather said.
“If they want to have an anabolic effect in their body they have to activate the cellular pathway, and our test will pick up any drug that activates that anabolic pathway,” she said.
“So for once we’re on a level footing. We don’t need to wait for somebody to have some anomaly in their blood work saying, ‘hey they’re taking something but we don’t know what it is,’ to find it. We can see that there is something there,” she added.
Heather said that designer steroids were still being developed and sold over the Internet, despite the widespread implementation of biological passports in elite sport.
The test would show any anomalies in that passport, which is a profile of biological markers that detect changes over time as athletes undergo regular in and out-of-competition testing.
At this stage, the test samples still needed to be analyzed in laboratories, but results would be known within four hours, she said.
Her ultimate goal was to have “rapid testing” capability where results could be produced within minutes of a test being taken.
Heather said she had developed the test alongside one for the horse racing industry, and the equine tests would be rolled out to labs by October, with human testing kits just “months behind.”
She has already been in touch with World Anti-Doping Agency scientists about the test and would shortly be in a position to discuss how it could be rolled out with the regulatory side of the watchdog.
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