With almost $12 million pledged for a 12 different countries and the International Olympic Committee for a new fund for anti-doping research, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has released some of its priorities for what the fund will address.
Among the first action items are autologous blood transfusions: when an athlete removes some of their blood, stores it, and then re-infuses it before a competition to boost their oxygen-carrying capacity. Although Lance Armstrong is now famous for using an actual drug, erythropoietin, blood transfusions were also described in gory detail in Tyler Hamilton’s cycling exposé, The Secret Race.
Such transfusions are hard to detect because they do not involve any chemicals or drugs – only the athlete’s own blood. They are also dangerous, but because of their undetectability may be a major strategy in doping in endurance sports. WADA understandably wants to prioritize research in this area.
According to a press release, several of WADA’s other proposed focuses are extensions their current program. The first is an emphasis on the Athlete Biological Passport program, which tests athletes repeatedly to get baseline readings on different biological parameters; if a variable, for instance hemoglobin, then spikes in a later test, this may be evidence of doping. (For a great illustration of typical and atypical biological passports, see here.)
WADA also seeks research on the prevalence of doping in general and in specific sports. As has been previously discussed on this site, it is difficult to say exactly how much doping is happening because testing does not detect all doping offenses and athletes do not admit their activities.
And perhaps to help with this, part of the funds will go to developing lower-cost and less-invasive tests so that more athletes can be tested. One idea mentioned in the press release was to develop blood tests that can be based on a finger prick, like lactate testing in exercise science.
Finally, the funding will be directed to several scientifically sophisticated areas:
- Genomics: the field of genomics upscales from genetics and instead of considering genes, considers whole genomes. Genomics could be used to, for instance, match a bag of blood found in an anti-doping sting to an athlete whose DNA profile is on record (WADA has not suggested this use, and did not describe how they wish to use genomics). Through genomics, researchers can also examine RNA, double- or single-stranded genetic material that comes in many functions. MicroRNAs, or miRNAs, for instance, have only around 22 nucleotides and regulate gene expression. Importantly, there are many different miRNA’s – and in 2013 a team published a (free, open-access) paper showing that some were much more prevalent after an autologous blood transfusion. This tool could be used to detect blood doping.
- Proteomics: the field of proteomics considers not genes, but their products – proteins. The kinds and abundances of all proteins expressed in the body can tell scientists what kinds of genes are turned “on”, and this may provide clues to whether athletes are doing something to boost their oxygen-carrying capacity. For instance, some proteins expressed within red blood cells change their abundances over the lifespan of the cell, meaning that old cells – like those taken out of the body and stored in a refrigerator for six weeks – have a different signature than new ones.
- Metabolomics: metabolites are the intermediate products when the body processes any kind of molecule. While many doping tests focus exclusively on the banned substance itself, metabolomics could go one step further by detecting some of these intermediate byproducts. For instance, clostebol, a testosterone derivative sometimes used for doping, has at least fourteen different metabolites as its structure shifts during these reactions. One of the metabolites can currently be detected for up to 25 days.
- Detecting doping through hair samples: there is considerable scientific literature discussing the possibility of using hair samples to detect drug use, primarily anabolic steroids and testosterone in a doping context. This method is not appropriate for substances that are banned only in competition (but not in training), because time of use cannot be determined. On the contrary, however, it could be very useful for detecting the use of substances which quickly clear the body and may have a short time window for detection through blood or urine tests, but which (like steroids) improve performance for a much longer period of time.
- Detecting doping through wastewater: a 2010 paper in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry tested using mass spectroscopy to detect steroids, stimulants, and other drugs in sewage. Some doping drugs have very short half-lives in the human body, but that means that they are excreted in urine or other bodily waste. In the 2010 paper, a team worked at fitness centers in Aachen, Germany, and found traces of testosterone, ephedrine, and amphetamines in the sites’ wastewater. It will be interesting to see how WADA would use this in actual doping investigations.
The research will be performed in laboratories around the world, and scientific teams can apply for funding by laying out their proposed questions.
WADA will also devote a portion of the funding to research in the social sciences, with specific research focuses to be announced later.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.