16th February 2018

University develops cheap anti-doping test that takes seconds

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have developed a drug test that they claim takes between 10 and 55 seconds and could cost just a few dollars per sample. It is understood that the test uses coated blade-spray mass spectrometry that can detect more than 100 drugs using a drop of blood or a few millilitres of urine on a coated sample strip at the parts per billion level – the equivalent of being able to detect a sugar cube that has been dissolved in an Olympic sized swimming pool.

It is understood that advances in analytical information such as Direct Analysis in Real Time (DART) and Open Port Probe mass spectrometry means that doping test analysis can be carried out on site. After a washing step, the probe can be placed in front of a mass spectrometer for analysis. In the future, it is expected that such tests will be interfaced with a simplified mass spectrometer shrunken to the size of a PC desktop computer that can be set up anywhere.

The idea is that any sample that returned a positive test would be followed up by full analysis using standard methods. It is understood that the technology relies on a method developed by Professor Janusz Pawliszyn in the 1990s called Solid Phase Micro Extraction (SPME), which uses a solid coating on a sample probe to selectively extract chemical substances from blood, saliva, urine or plasma.

Such technology has the potential to simplify and reduce the cost of anti-doping tests, which are currently expensive due to the requirement for analysis to be carried out in a laboratory accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). This requires anti-doping organisations (ADOs) to ship urine and blood samples under strict storage requirements.

This can create testing ‘black spots’ in less developed countries, which are less likely to have the financial resources to develop a WADA-accredited laboratory. This then compounds the issue, by requiring such countries to spend additional money by shipping samples overseas. For example, at present, Africa does not have a WADA-accredited laboratory.

Blood tests are particularly expensive for many ADOs. This is because it costs money to send a trained blood collection officer and a phlebotomist to process a blood sample, and because a vial of blood needs to be cold shipped to a WADA Laboratory within three days without being frozen, and must be temperature logged at all times.

Sport is beginning to look at alternatives to the current ‘wet’ sample system in use to test athletes for prohibited substances. Last month, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) revealed that it would be implementing dried blood spot testing, which uses an index card that can be mailed to a WADA laboratory for analysis.

In 2015, UKAD Chairman David Kenworthy told the BBC that a standard urine test costs £371 and an Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) test costs £439. Both the test developed by the University of Waterloo and that which is being introduced by the UFC have the potential to significantly reduce these costs, which would mean that anti-doping tests would no longer be a luxury exclusively enjoyed by developed nations.

It is perhaps unreasonable to expect that countries such as Kenya would be able to allocate the same financial resources towards anti-doping as – for example – the UK. Rightly or wrongly, this creates the perception amongst athletes that they are not competing on a level playing field. The introduction of cheaper, quicker tests such as the ones outlined above could, arguably, do more to correct that perception than allocating ever-larger amounts of money to anti-doping.

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