Science - February 13, 2014

Rikilt on the hunt for ‘super drug’

Albert Sikkema

On the eve of the Olympic Games, the German media published alarming reports of a ‘super drug’ that enhances sports performance enormously while being invisible to the anti-doping officials.

The reports concerned the growth hormone MGF (Mechano Growth Factor). It is well known to Rikilt, which carries out analyses to detect performance enhancing substances in livestock farming and among sportspeople. Rikilt researcher Saskia Sterk says MGF is a protein with growth-stimulating properties. The substance, which boosts the recovery of damaged muscles, is found in naturally humans, like the hormone testosterone.

At present, the substance is indeed invisible in doping tests but Sterk expects it will not be much longer before it becomes possible to detect the difference between natural and synthetic MGF, as is already done with testosterone. In the case of MGF, mass spectrometry can probably be used to reveal the difference, says Sterk, who wrote a scientific review article on the subject three months ago. ‘We are now working on project proposals for screening and confirmation methods.’

According to her, one advantage is that MGF is similar to IGF (Insulin-like Growth Factor), a protein hormone that regulates the functioning of growth hormones in the body. A screening method has already been developed for this substance. It has revealed that IGF is present in preparations that can be obtained illegally via the Internet.

Cat and mouse

Although it will take a little while before we have a screening method for MGF, Sterk says any users are certain to get caught. After all, athletes’ urine samples are kept for 10 years and she says a detection method will definitely have  been developed by then. This is all part of the cat-and-mouse game doping manufacturers and anti-doping officials play ‘and we aim to keep up with that game’.

According to Sterk, a much more dangerous development than MGF is gene doping, in which the genetic makeup of sportspeople is changed so that they produce more red blood cells, for example, or natural growth enhancers. ‘Gene doping is much more difficult to detect. We think that’s the direction sports doping will go.’