The Evolution, Innovation and Research and Development of Performance Enhancing Drug Testing Within Sport.

March 11, 2022

by Kalim Hussain

We are amidst another action-packed year of sport following the climax of the Winter Olympics and imminent start of the Paralympic games, a Premier League title race and Winter World Cup, a T20 World Cup for the second year in succession and so much more.  2022 promises exciting times for both sports fans and competitors alike.  

Despite the continuous excitement and anticipation for global sporting events that grip and unite people and entire nations behind a shared love, professional sport remains plagued with on and off-field challenges. One of which seems to have a constant presence, doping. Whilst it is within an elite athlete’s nature to strive and demand perfection within their performance, gaining a competitive edge over opponents by falling into the trap of using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) remains a stain on professional sport. Recent research & development into the intricacies of PEDs has not only enhanced their potency but rendered modern methods of doping increasingly complex to detect.  On the other hand, innovation into drug testing methods and techniques is constantly evolving as scientific and sporting bodies work to bridge this gap and assist in navigating sport into a more ethical climate and cleaner future. 

So, where’s the Research and Development in Performance Enhancing Drugs? 

In an era where designer handbags, fashion and social interactions take precedence over most things for some in society, performance-enhancing drugs have found their place within 21stCentury sports society. Dubbed “designer steroids” by the Mayo Clinic, an American Academic Medical Centre, and others within the industry, a class of particularly dangerous anabolic steroids has been illicitly developed to aid athletes. The synthetic steroids are made specifically for athletes and have no approved medical use and as such, haven’t been tested or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), thus representing a health threat to those who decide to use them. With this in mind, what is there stopping well-equipped organisations from using research and development to synthesise original and unknown PEDs? Well, in short, not a great deal. The BALCO scandal, 2003, whereby Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), unsurprisingly nicknamed ‘The Clear’ was used by a number of athletes, whether they claim intentionally or not is an example. Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, unknowingly used THG, in turn propelling him to a record 73 home runs in 2001 and a $90m contract. However, it must be acknowledged that Bonds has never been punished by Major League Baseball as he never failed a drugs test. As such the use went undetected until a former athletics coach tipped off the authorities and an investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) began. Over the next decade, it seems as if nothing changed. From BALCO to Biogenesis, 2013 saw an almost carbon copy of events 10 years prior when a whistleblower of the Biogenesis clinic turned over a box of documents to the Miami New Times, incriminating a number of Major League Baseball players for utilising PED’s. Maybe some things never change, or do they?

How is innovation being used to fight back? 

Whilst common methods of drug testing are well-known with detection found from samples of an individual’s biofluids, namely blood, saliva or urine tested post-game in most sports, it now seems that such tests are going to be a thing of the past. Research and development of fingerprint tests to detect PEDs is a technology constantly evolving. The innovative tests called ‘paper spray mass spectrometry’ detect molecules found in fingerprints as the body metabolises drugs. This ground-breaking test is non-invasive and takes a few mins to provide a result in real-time. In addition to this, the person’s identity and substance use are simultaneously captured in the sample, increasing the authenticity of this testing method. As such, cheating athletes can no longer use someone else’s urine or blood to bypass a drug test. The doping technique most infamously used in Russia’s state-sponsored doping program for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, again only uncovered by a tipster, the former head of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov.   

Whilst the total prevention of doping within the sport is perhaps an impossible task. The constant evolution, innovation and research and development of performance-enhancing drug testing show promise for providing an innovative, ever-evolving barrier to those who dope. The battle between the evolution of PED development and PED testing is undoubtedly a fierce one, where ultimately, the research and development successes will be the overriding factor on which side of the fence prevails. 

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