Science - February 24, 2005

Hormone hunters make new doping test

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has asked Rikilt in Wageningen to carry out a three-year project. Two years ago Rikilt tracked down a previously unknown variant of clenbuterol, and now they are going to refine the detection method. If successful the method should put an end to designer doping in the sports world.

Since 2003 the sports world has been gripped by the Balco case. This American supplements laboratory supplied top athletes such as Marion Jones, Kelly White and Tim Montgomery with anabolic steroids that went undetected by the usual doping tests. One of the anabolic steroids was THG, a variant of trenbolone, which is popular among bodybuilders and animal breeders. The use of THG was exposed as the result of a quarrel between employees at the supplements laboratory. An angry employee sent a THG ampoule to the hormone hunters so that they could develop a test.

‘How often do hormone hunters get that lucky?’ Dr Michel Nielen of Rikilt muses. ‘Not often, but as a result of this Wada is interested in our Time of Flight (TOF) mass spectrometry method.’ All the conventional tests for anabolic steroids, amphetamines and clenbuterol variants have a shortcoming. They only sound the alarm if they come across a substance they already know. That is why hormone hunters are powerless in the face of designer doping, where small underground laboratories make tiny modifications to drugs so that they still improve performance, but are impossible to detect. The side effects of these drugs are unknown.

‘The method we are now going to refine would have been able to detect a designer anabolic steroid such as THG in the urine of athletes,’ says Nielen. ‘We are able to say this because we tried out our method on the urine of human volunteers who were given very small amounts of THG metabolites. The TOF mass spectrometer picked them up immediately.’ Nielen will reveal this tour de force next week at a doping congress.

Time of Flight mass spectrometry is a method in which the molecules in samples are all given the same electrical energy, after which they all cover the same distance in a vacuum tube. The apparatus measures the time the molecules need to cover the distance, which enables their weight to be calculated and therefore also their chemical structure. The instrument means that scientists do not have to know beforehand what compounds they are looking for.

Before the molecules are put in the instrument the scientists screen them see if they contain stimulatory substances. ‘We have developed sensitive yeast cells that react to androgens,’ says Nielen. ‘These sort out which samples come from anabolic steroids users.’ / WK

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