How High Throughput Methods Could Revolutionize Drug Testing in Sport


By Laura A. Cox, Ph.D., Department of Genetics, Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, Alamo Area Aquatics Association, San Antonio, TX

Did you see the new television show “Life on Mars”? The main character is a police detective who is transported back in time from 2008 to 1973. During an investigation the main character asks his 1973 fellow-police detectives how long it will take to find out if fingerprints from a crime scene match any records in the database. One 1973 detective replies that it will take about 2 weeks. While the 2008 detective is thinking that two weeks is an incredibly long time and in 2008 it would only take a few hours, the second 1973 detective interjects that it’s amazing what technology can do to get the results back so quickly. As with crime detection, quick accurate results in sports drug testing can dramatically improve the odds of catching the bad guys.

This fictional story reminds us that technologies we take for granted today were beyond the realm of science fiction only 30 years ago. What does this have to do with drug testing in sport? Methods that are currently available for testing biological samples to identify genes, proteins, and many other substances were beyond imagination 30 years ago.

The classical approach in biology and medicine has been to test for one substance in one sample at a time. Tweaking the testing protocols might allow for increased throughput, i.e. faster sample processing, for testing for one substance in as many as 20 or 30 samples at one time. These methods were standard in the 1950’s through the early 1990’s. The convergence of increased computing power, implementation of stringent quality controls on reagents for testing, development of specialized software tools and machines in the late 1990’s has led to the development of methodologies that allow for testing of hundreds and even thousands of substances in a single sample.

In addition, these new technologies allow for analysis of hundreds of samples at once and require very small amounts of sample material. That is, using today’s technologies it is feasible to analyze samples from a few hundred individuals quantifying hundreds or thousands of substances at one time. And even though the current methods require much less sample material from each individual, the results are far more precise than previous methods. Because samples can be run in parallel, using less sample material and less time, these new technologies have dramatically reduced the cost of sample analysis for each substance from dollars to pennies and reduced the time to analyze samples from weeks to days.

In addition to more rapid testing and analysis, these new capabilities provide a “profile” on the thousands of genes or proteins in a sample and this profile is extremely sensitive to substances such as cigarette smoke and prescription drugs to name a few. This profile, which has been referred to as a physiological profile or a “physiological passport,” provides a detailed physiological fingerprint for each individual. Consequently, these new technologies allow us to not only ask: Do we find evidence of “Banned Substance X” in the sample from this athlete? But also allow us to ask: Do we see changes in a person’s physiological profile that suggests use of a banned substance?

In an era when some cheaters are collaborating with chemists for access to the latest designer steroid or growth hormone rather than using “Banned Substance X,” the availability of testing methods that identify abnormal profiles without prior knowledge of all substances currently in use by cheaters is a powerful tool. Biomedical scientists and clinicians transitioned to high throughput methods more than 7 years ago; maybe it’s time to increase the odds of catching the cheaters and leave behind the decades’ old approaches for drug testing in sport. If not, it’s just “Life on Mars” for clean athletes.

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