Researchers have unveiled a refined test for doping compounds that is said to be a thousand times more sensitive than those used today.
Testing laboratories would not need to purchase new equipment to enjoy the benefits of the new testing procedure, its developers say.
“Our goal is to develop ultra-sensitive methods that will extend the window of detection, and we have maybe the most sensitive method in the world,” said Dr Daniel Armstrong, who led the research, the findings of which were presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.
Hongyue Guo, a graduate student in Armstrong’s lab at the University of Texas in Arlington, said the new strategy was a simple variation on a common testing technique called mass spectrometry.
The International Olympic Committee, the US Anti-Doping Agency and others routinely use mass spectrometry to ensure athletes are “clean”. It separates compounds by mass, or weight, allowing scientists to determine the component parts of a mixture.
In the case of performance-enhancing drugs, technicians use the method to find the bits left over in blood, urine or other body fluids after the body breaks the active agent down.
Because some of the pieces, or metabolites, are small and have a negative charge, they may not produce a signal strong enough for the instrument to detect, Armstrong explained — especially in the case of stimulants, which the body rapidly breaks down.
Stimulants such as amphetamines increase alertness and reduce the signs of fatigue.
The method Armstrong’s lab has pioneered, called paired ion electrospray ionization (PIESI), gathers several of those drug bits together, making them more obvious to the detector.
So far, Guo has used PIESI to detect different kinds of steroids and stimulants.
Guo has demonstrated that the technique is often sensitive enough to detect one part per billion of performance-enhancing drug metabolites in urine, which he said is up to 1000 times better than existing methods.
Testing laboratories would not need to purchase new equipment to get the new technique’s advantages, according to Guo.
The new method requires the addition of only one ingredient to existing mass spectronomy procedures, and Guo noted that the chemical was already commercially available and inexpensive.
Armstrong said he expected anti-doping agencies to quickly get on board.
“PIESI is going to be useful in so many different areas,” Armstrong said. In some cases, he noted, PIESI was 100,000 times more sensitive than other detection methods.
The research was funded by the Robert A. Welch Foundation.