Olympic Drug Testing Lab to Become National Phenome Center

Testing. The antidoping lab was unveiled in January.


LONDON—The Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), both funded by the U.K. government, have arranged to take over the Olympics antidoping laboratory. They plan to transform it into a national center dedicated to metabolic phenotyping, a field that examines blood, urine, and tissues for the thousands of molecules produced by the body's chemical reactions, with the aim of linking them up to diseases.

"There is nothing like this anywhere in the world," says Jeremy Nicholson, head of the surgery and cancer department at Imperial College London and a pioneer of the emerging field, who will become the center's first research director.

The state-of-the-art antidoping laboratory, the size of seven tennis courts, was originally a partnership between drug control scientists at King's College London and the British pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline. It was going to be closed at the end of the Olympics, says Jonathan Weber, research director for medicine at Imperial College London, who helped coordinate the proposal. The switchover to the MRC-NIHR Phenome Centre, as it will be known, is slated for early October, and the center will open for business in January.

A phenome describes all of a person's physiological traits in the same way that a genome describes genetic features; metabolic phenotyping focuses on metabolites, the products of chemical reactions inside the body. By studying these unique biochemical signatures in fluids such as blood and urine, it's possible to make connections between a person's metabolism and the diseases they develop, which may lead to diagnostic tests and drugs targeted to a person's individual biochemistry.

The antidoping lab has mass spectrometers and machines for high performance liquid chromatography and gas chromatography, allowing high-throughput testing of more than 6000 urine and blood samples from athletes. About 60% of this equipment will be reused.

MRC and NIHR are each providing £5 million of funding; the site and buildings belong to GlaxoSmithKline, while the U.S.-based equipment manufacturers Bruker BioSpin and Waters will provide instrumentation. The center will analyze about 25,000 samples in its first year, with the aim of scaling up to 100,000 a year.

More on this story in Friday's print edition of Science.