22 November 2018

"I can’t, when you’re watching"


A new doping test for athletes is under development at the University of Copenhagen. A prick of the finger and drop of blood are all that is needed for the faster, easier and cheaper doping control, one that is also less awkward and cumbersome than urinalysis.

The Dried Blood Spots (DBS) method has the potential to be more time effective and cost efficient than current doping control methods.

Anti Doping Denmark administered 1,768 doping tests on Danish athletes in 2017. A large portion of these were taken by analyzing an athlete's urine. More specifically, a minimum of 90 milliliters of urine needed to be collected, in a cup, under the watchful eyes of an Anti-Doping Denmark control officer. This is a cumbersome, time-consuming method that is also quite awkward for the athlete.  

"Many people have a tough time providing urine samples and are intimidated by the situation. Nor does it help when athletes have just been engaged in competition and are sweating and dehydrated. 90 milliliters can be a quite a lot to pee just after an event," according to PhD student Sara Amalie Solheim of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports. Solheim also works as a doping control officer for Anti Doping Denmark.

She has helped start up an Industrial PhD project that is developing a new doping control method, DBS – Dried Blood Spots, in a collaboration between Anti-Doping Denmark, the University of Copenhagen and the Norwegian Doping Control Laboratory.

Blood drops are more effective

The sample is taken from a small prick on the finger, a process that most people are already familiar with from a doctor’s visit. The drop of blood is transferred to a special type of filter paper, where it dries and is sent for laboratory analysis.

Dried Blood Spots, DBS, allows for a faster and simpler execution of doping tests than current methods, which require a urine sample or larger blood sample drawn from a vein. Furthermore, a range of substances used for doping are more stable in dried blood than in normal tests. The method allows for dried drops of blood to be transported at room temperature, in contrast to vein-drawn samples which require cooling during transport and must be analyzed within tight time frames.

"Many people can be tested in a short amount of time, so the collection of samples will be easier and cheaper. There are no limits as to how fast a sample must be delivered to the laboratory, whereas current methods require samples to be delivered to a lab within 48-72 hours. However, it is important to note that the methods will probably never replace urine samples and normal blood tests, but rather serve to supplement them. For example, DBS could be used as a screening prior to any potential further samples," explains Solheim.

The analysis is under development

Obviously, the new testing methods must be good at discovering traces of doping substances. There are roughly 500 substances on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Prohibited List and numerous laboratories around the world are working to trace these substances using the DBS method. Sara Amalie Solheim has chosen to focus on three of the most significant banned substances for her PhD.

“Among other things, we are looking at how to test for insulin, testosterone and clenbuterol. We do this by developing and approving analytical methods in the laboratory, collecting DBS samples from volunteers and comparing these with traditional analysis methods," says Solheim.

The analyses are in the process of being developed, and Sara Amalie Solheim is waiting until the results are released in a scientific publication before they are put to use. Beyond that, there is quite a way to go before the method can be used for the Tour de France or other events. WADA must approve all new doping control methods before they are put into practice and there are a number of strict requirements for sample collection and analysis procedures. The process must be water tight in the event of legal action.

Prior to WADA-approval, athletes cannot be sanctioned based on a positive from a DBS reading. However, it will be possible to use DBS in combination with approved tests (urinalysis, normal blood tests). DBS could also be used for educational purposes. For example, for the first experiences of young athletes with doping control screenings.