New Test Improves Detection Of Performance-Enhancing Drugs

A group of scientists has developed a doping test 1,000 times more sensitive than those currently used. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with lead researcher Daniel Armstrong about how the test works.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At almost all levels of competition, athletes look for an edge to will help them win. Some players cross the line and cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs. We might hear about it when big name stars are caught doping. But there are athletes who manage to outsmart drug tests. They keep playing, and possibly, winning. These tests may have just gotten better. A group of scientists have developed a doping test that is said to be 1,000 times more sensitive than those currently used. Professor Daniel Armstrong led the research at the University of Texas in Arlington. He joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, Professor Armstrong.

DANIEL ARMSTRONG: Well, thank you, Rachel. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Let's get straight into the science. How do you detect performance-enhancing drugs right now and how is your test different?

ARMSTRONG: Well, what we test actually are the metabolites. So, if you take a drug of any kind, whether it's performance-enhancing or illicit or a legitimate drug, your body metabolizes it. That is it changes the drug. It does this by sticking other little moieties on there to make it more water soluble so you can excrete it, things like that. And so we're actually detecting these metabolites that the body makes from the drugs.

MARTIN: So, you're testing out the body responds to a drug, how it changes it?

ARMSTRONG: Many of the metabolites are negatively charged. And we developed a mass spectrometry method to more sensitively detect these negatively charged metabolites.

MARTIN: So, when you developed this, you had other applications in mind, other than finding sports cheaters?

ARMSTRONG: Oh, absolutely. We developed them as a general method for any small negatively charged molecule. And we've developed it to be used for environmental pollutants or biologically important molecules. And so we thought the logical next choice of an application would be for a drug metabolite detection.

MARTIN: Has this been through any kind of peer review yet?

ARMSTRONG: No. it's just getting ready to be set out for peer review. At the meeting where we presented these results, they prefer new material to be presented rather than stuff that has already been published.

MARTIN: So, you've outlined your intentions of how the test could be used, different applications, but have you had any interest from any sports-governing bodies or the World Anti-Doping Agency in your new drug detection test?

ARMSTRONG: Actually, I've gotten emails just from the press releases. I got an email from the FBI. I've gotten an email lots of sports magazines, including a karate magazine that took my secretary aback. She said you got an email from BloodyElbow.com. She had no idea what that was. Turns out it was a karate sports magazine.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Professor Daniel Armstrong. He's from the University of Texas in Arlington. He's been researching a new way to test for performance-enhancing drugs. Thanks so much for talking with us, professor.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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