anti-doping in drug screening: how it works
by Neoteryx | 4 min read
Doping in sport has been a major challenge worldwide, threatening the integrity of sports competitions, as well as athletes’ health, and even their lives. Doping in athletics dates back to the 1920s, and has become more sophisticated over the years despite efforts to curb it.
Issues around doping in sport increased in the 1990s, leading to the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 1999 to fight against doping in sports worldwide using the World Anti-Doping Code. Most anti-doping organizations base their anti-doping programs on this document to coordinate anti-doping policies, rules, and regulations.
With the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and other sporting events moving forward, anti-doping organizations have been testing athletes as part of the qualification process. According to WADA, 24,430 samples had been collected by 152 anti-doping organizations as of May 2021.
This is the highest number of samples collected since the global pandemic began in March 2020. Sadly, many athletes were disqualified from participating in the Olympics after testing positive for prohibited drugs, according to the Anti-Doping Rule Violations (ADRV).
How Athletes Are Screened for Drug Use
The drug testing procedure is broadly divided into seven stages:
1. Selection of Athletes
WADA requires athletes to be tested in and out of competition. It also stipulates the prohibited substances tested in both situations. In-competition athletes are tested for:
Specimen collection and testing are performed 12 hours before a national or international sporting event. Out-of-competition athletes are tested for:
- Anabolic agents
- Beta-2 agonists
- Diuretics and other masking agents
- Peptide hormones
2. Athlete Notification for Testing
An assigned Doping Control Officer (DCO) usually locates the athletes and informs them about the requirement to provide a sample and their rights and responsibilities. Athletes are also required to sign a form to acknowledge and accept the notification.
3. Sample Selection
Blood and urine samples are used for drug testing in athletes. For urine sample collection, the DCO ensures an unobstructed view of the sample leaving the athlete’s body. A 90 ml sample is collected in a tamper-proof bottle.
For blood testing, athletes follow similar procedures, but a healthcare professional typically collects the sample under the supervision of the DCO. Despite the development of less-invasive blood collection methods, most sport testing agencies and officers currently use phlebotomy practices to collect liquid blood samples via venipuncture (a needle in the vein of the arm). The wet blood is collected in vials, stored, and transported for analysis at 2-12° C.
4. Declaration and Certification
The athletes must inform the DCO about medications or supplements they have taken in the last seven days.
5. Transfer of the Samples to the Lab
Once the samples and accompanying documents are presented to the Doping Control Station, each custody transfer is documented until the samples arrive at the lab.
6. Lab Testing
Urine samples are subjected to lab analysis using a range of tests. Each analytical test is appropriate to the respective prohibited substance, whether testing in-competition or out-of-competition.
For example, liquid chromatography and gas chromatography separates the drugs and the metabolites in the sample. The two tests are used along with mass spectrometry to determine the structure of the drugs.
- Detects any blood manipulation through transfusion
- Identifies biomarkers for the human growth hormone
- Quantifies endogenous blood parameters like reticulocytes, hemoglobin, and hematocrit
Routine monitoring of such blood parameters also detects indirect doping practices. The parameters are recorded on the Athlete’s Biological Passport (ABP).
7. Reporting the Results
The lab analysis results are reported to the respective anti-doping organization. If the analysis didn’t detect any prohibited substances, the athlete can participate in the competition.
If test results are positive for any prohibited substance, the athletes are in violation of ADRV, and the anti-doping organization must notify them. The athletes may request another analysis of sample B to be conducted in their presence accompanied by their representative. WADA may disqualify the athletes or set a period of ineligibility to compete depending on the ADRV.
Changes in Blood Sample Collection Methods
Due to several disadvantages presented by traditional venipuncture blood draws, including high costs, complicated transport and storage, and discomfort for athletes, WADA is allowing anti-doping organizations to use alternative blood collection methods. One such method is the dried blood microsampling method. WADA issued a statement in May stating its approval for use of microsampling at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
The organization believes this blood sample collection method offers advantages, such as:
- Less expensive sample collection
- Easier sample collection; requires only a simple finger-prick for a small volume of blood
- Less invasive than venipuncture; a better experience for the athletes
- Less space needed for dried sample storage
- Greater sample stability, when dried
Different finger-prick devices will be used to collect samples during the Olympics on a trial basis to identify the best one for blood sample collection, transport and testing. It’s an excellent opportunity to try blood sampling devices like the Mitra device® that uses VAMS® technology, based on absorptive microsampling.
Mitra devices facilitate remote microsampling using the finger-prick method. A lancet is used to prick the fingertip, and the VAMS tips on the Mitra devices absorb a few drops of blood. The Mitra devices are then sealed in their protective cartridge and sent to the lab for analysis.
Mitra devices have proved to deliver high-quality samples to test hormones and other compounds, with results that correlate well with results from traditional blood samples.
The Future of Blood Sample Collection Analysis
WADA has approved specific laboratories around the world to perform tests for the Olympics and international sports events. For the current Olympic competitions, the samples are being analyzed at a WADA-accredited lab in Tokyo.
The recent transition to finger-prick blood sampling methods has created the need to set up more WADA labs that are qualified to analyze dried blood samples.