The fight against doping in sport may be set to receive a double boost with the announcement of two new detection systems in the pipeline for performance-enhancing drugs, one of which researchers believe could spell the death of erythropietin (EPO) blood-doping.
Dr Yannis Pitsiladis of Glasgow University, whose team is funded by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), revealed that they are on the brink of a revolutionary erythropoietin (EPO) detection breakthrough which will look for the effects of EPO in the body's cellular anatomy rather than its presence in the bloodstream or urine.
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Texas in Arlington, led by Dr David Armstrong, unveiled a new screen for stimulants and steroids, which they claim is 1,000 times more sensitive than current detection methods.
Both tests will increase the window of opportunity in which athletes can be caught using performance-enhancing drugs.
Dr Pitsiladis’ team at Glasgow university believe that they’ve come up with the ideal drug test with which to catch blood-doping athletes.
The team’s system analyses the cellular anatomy of an athlete to determine whether or not the drug has been at work in their system.
EPO is a glycoprotein hormone which controls the growth of red blood cells. The use of EPO increases the number of red blood cells in the body, improving oxygen delivery to muscles which, in turn, improves an athlete’s endurance.
"The tests we are developing are based not on finding the drug itself but actually discovering what the drug is doing, which is much harder," Dr. Pitsiladis told Scottish newspaper The Herald. "At the same time, if it works, it is nearly impossible to tamper with.
"This has to be the way forward because a lot of these drugs are out of your system almost as soon as you've taken them."
The tests which Pitsiladis is working toward perfecting will look for genetic expressions which prove the use of EPO.
So far, the team have devised a test which can conclusively prove the use of larger doses of EPO, and are now working toward a test that can do the same with the smaller amounts of the drug which some athletes use to evade current detection methods.
When he was asked if he thought that this new method of detecting substances in the human body was the perfect test to catch dopers, Dr Pitsiladis said: "I can't think of a better one.
"The idea is that this technology should not only be used for identifying EPO use but also for other difficult to detect drugs like growth hormone, testosterone and cortisol."
Over in the US, Dr David Armstrong and his team’s stimulant and steroid detection system is being touted as a 1,000-fold improvement on the widely used mass spectrometry technique for the detection of amphetamines and steroids.
Mass spectronomy equipment works by exposing urine samples to beams of electrons, which turn atoms into charged particles so that a magnetic field can weigh them to distinguish what substances are present in the urine.
This equipment cannot detect Human Growth Hormone or EPO, and it also struggles to detect particularly tiny traces of substances.
But the new technique, which the team have dubbed Paired Ion Electrospray Ionisation (PIESI), makes steroid or amphetamine traces more visible to current detection equipment through the introduction of a chemical agent which binds to the traces.
"It makes them much more detectable," Dr Armstrong, who led the research team, told BBC News.
"We're talking about parts per trillion, sub-parts per trillion - and the amazing thing is that it is so simple."
The chemical binding agent is commercially available, and given that current technology can work with the new technique, the team are confident that rolling the new testing methods out to governing bodies will be both swift and inexpensive.
A variation of the method is already being used to detect minute amounts of industrial contaminants.
Following the American Chemical Society meeting in Dallas the scientists submitted their workings for review, but unlike Dr Pitsiladis' research, the BBC says that neither WADA, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) nor the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has shown an interesting in investigating or funding the team’s work.
In each case the tests would have to be validated before they could be used to analyse athletes' samples.