New detection system to test athletes for performance-enhancing drugs

Scientists at The University of Nottingham are leading the field in developing a new detection system that could be used to test athletes for performance-enhancing drugs.

The research, being led by Professor Colin Snape in the University’s School of Chemical, Environmental and Mining Engineering and published recently in Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, will provide a more reliable way of detecting drug molecules in the body.

In collaboration with Dr Mark Sephton at the Open University, Professor Snape’s research group has developed a technique called hydropyrolysis, commonly used to aid oil exploration by liberating small fragments of organic matter from petroleum rock sources. The modified process can recognise the origin of any carbon-based molecules, including fatty acids and steroids, in the body.

The type of carbon in the body’s molecules reflects the carbon ingested as part of an athlete’s diet. Drugs manufactured in the lab contain very different carbon, allowing the two types of molecules to be distinguished by scientific instruments.

However, previous techniques have been unable to offer a precise detection method. Professor Snape explained: "In effect, you are what you eat plus a little bit of what you might inject. In their natural form, however, the body’s molecules are too ‘sticky’ for accurate measurements by our laboratory equipment."

Some methods overcome these problems but add carbon to the target molecule, irreversibly overprinting the carbon source ‘signal’. The research into hydropyrolysis, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, has developed a new approach that delicately strips molecules of their ‘sticky’ parts but retains the carbon skeleton intact, allowing easy detection of the carbon source.

The new detection system could allow scientists to pinpoint banned substances in an athlete’s system — even the new designer steroid specifically manufactured to avoid detection recently uncovered by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada).

Professor Snape added: "Our discovery of a method to produce easy to handle molecules without destroying their carbon source signal opens up the whole body’s molecules to intense scientific scrutiny."

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