Radical drugs test set to be ready by 2020

LONDON • A new test to detect banned performance-enhancing drugs should be ready before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in potentially the biggest breakthrough in the battle against doping for a generation.

When examining blood, the test can identify gene markers that are produced when an athlete takes banned drugs and which can be spotted weeks after the substance has been taken.

The International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) have awarded £540,000 (S$945,860) in funding to a research group at the University of Brighton to develop a testing system. The researchers say that the next step will be to identify the same markers in saliva.

The Times, London, revealed on Wednesday that a similar method is being trialled in English rugby union this season to test saliva to determine if a player has suffered a concussion.

Professor Yannis Pitsiladis, who is heading the research group, said: "We are very confident that this will be ready before Tokyo 2020."

Anti-doping tests usually search for traces of a banned drug in urine or blood. Athletes also have their blood-cell levels monitored over time via an athlete blood passport to measure any suspicious changes.

The new test will identify a telltale genetic signature - a genetic response called microRNAs that are produced when an athlete takes drugs such as erythropoietin (EPO) or steroids.

Research has shown that hundreds of these genetic markers are produced and some can be identified several weeks - and even months - after the drug has been taken.

Significantly, the EPO markers are different to the markers produced when an athlete trains at altitude.

Pitsiladis said that it was easier to monitor the markers in blood because saliva was contaminated by food or bacteria, but that developing a saliva test would be the next step.

"There is no point looking for the drug, we need to look at what is left behind," he said. "It can detect the use of the drug after it has left the system."

Ross Tucker, a sports scientist who sits on World Rugby's research panel, said: "If the new test can show DNA fingerprints from taking drugs such as EPO, then it could be a game changer."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2017, with the headline 'Radical drugs test set to be ready by 2020'. Print Edition | Subscribe