Cheaters Beware: New Doping Tests Ready for London's 2012 Olympics

Floyd Landis

Michael David Murphy

BRADFORD, UNITED KINGDOM—Athletes planning to dope for the 2012 Olympics in London would be better off staying home, because scientists are lying in wait with a new battery of doping tests. Speaking at the British Science Festival in Bradford earlier this week, David Cowan of King's College London, who will be leading the antidoping program for the 2012 games, announced that these games will be the "riskiest ever" for athletes who plan to cheat.

Among the new tests Cowan expects will be ready in time for the games are a more accurate test for human growth hormone (HGH) and a test for autologous blood doping, a method athletes use to boost the number of red blood cells and oxygen in circulation by drawing their own blood, storing it, and then transfusing it back into themselves. Up until now, the blood doping has been nearly impossible to detect. Tour de France cyclist Floyd Landis was caught because he used an artificial blood booster.

"We're not going to say" whether or not these tests will actually be used in the 2012 Olympics, Cowan said. That decision lies with the International Olympic Committee, and researchers are waiting to implement the tests until they are "sufficiently reliable to accuse an athlete," Cowan explained. But "we want to get the message out there that science can detect cheats."

Cowan added that that one of the biggest challenges is scaling-up to look at over 6000 samples they will be receiving. The antidoping program has partnered with GlaxoSmithKline in London, which will be providing labs and manpower.

The new test for HGH doping is expected to be an improvement over the current version, which successfully nabbed U.K. rugby player Terry Brown in 2010, but is unable to detect doping that occurred more than a few days before testing. The current test, which was implemented in 2004, compares the ratio between two different sizes, or isotopes, of the HGH molecule in the blood. Synthetic doping agents use the larger molecule, while the body normally makes both the larger and the smaller isotopes. But a newer test detects levels of two other blood proteins, IGF-1 and P3NP, whose levels increase with HGH administration and are detectable for longer, expanding the surveillance window. Cowan said this test is "well on its way, I would lay money on that being ready for 2012."

Autologous blood doping has been extraordinarily difficult to police because it uses no extraneous agents. The International Cycling Union, which tests for elevated levels of red blood cells, will not let cyclists start if their concentration is over a certain level. But cyclists can dupe this test by diluting their blood with saline. New research has found that the RNA profile of stored blood differs from that in the body. Using gene chips, researchers have developed a test to look for "aged" RNA, Cowan says. He's hopeful that the test will be ready and implemented in the 2012 Olympics, but won't divulge specifics.

One difficulty with any of these tests is that vital data vary quite a bit from person to person. To avoid false positives and negatives in testing, antidoping officials have proposed that competitors maintain a "biological passport," a baseline profile of each athlete's natural blood composition. The World Anti-Doping Agency supports the idea, Cowan says, but the International Olympic Commission has made no announcement committing to implementing it. Organizations such as the International Cycling Union and International Association of Athletics Federations have been using the biological passport since 2008, says Yorck Olaf Schumacher of the University of Freiberg in Germany. A course of six tests over a year, or even a shorter span of time, he says, gives doping testers a good idea of an athlete's profile.

The passport is "a good tool and it's really coming along," Schumacher told ScienceInsider; he hopes it will be more widely implemented as antidopers gain more experience with it. "There's a deterrent effect" if athletes know it's being used, he says. When the Cycling Federation implemented the passport in 2007, the number of athletes found with higher than normal red blood cell levels dropped significantly. Schumacher's group is now working on a different test for autologous blood doping that will detect markers expressed on the surface of immune cells when they are exposed to stored blood.