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Headlines Published on 3 February 2009

Title New development for untested, performance-enhancing drugs

Athletes who take non-tested performance-enhancing drugs are in for a big surprise. Until now, the tests developed by researchers to detect drugs were made when the drugs were already on the market. Enter a group of researchers in Germany that is currently developing tests for a class of drugs that aren’t yet available, but could be used in future. The findings were recently published in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis.

Cheating athletes are feeling the pinch © Shutterstock
Cheating athletes are feeling the pinch
© Shutterstock

It has become easier for people to catch athletes using illegal substances to enhance their performances. Six athletes were caught during the last Olympics, held in the Chinese capital of Beijing, and three suspect cases were identified after the games.

Sources have been quoted as saying that many athletes got away with using performance-enhancing drugs that remained undetected when standard tests were applied. Some theorise that a number of athletes could have been using drugs that have not been tested on humans, but are known to effectively enhance performance in animals. Because these drugs are in such an early stage of development, it is very hard for sports officials to detect them.

Thanks to this innovative test, developed by German researchers, the officials will soon have the ability to screen for a number of emerging drugs and others that are not yet available on the market.

According to the researchers, the test detects a core chemical structure belonging to ‘benzothiazepines’, a class of compounds that stabilises protein channels and obstructs calcium from leaking from muscle cells during strenuous exercise. Scientists agree that calcium aids muscle contraction. If calcium leaks, the contractions become weaker, thus triggering muscle fatigue.

‘As soon as these drugs enter human clinical trials, there is a huge potential for them to be missed in sports,’ explained Dr Mario Thevis, head of the Center for Preventive Doping Research at the German Sport University of Cologne, Germany. ‘This preventive research lets us prepare before these compounds are officially launched.’

The team said because the compounds are simple in nature, their production and black market trade as performance enhancers are pretty much clear-cut.

Dr Thevis added that this research characterised the compounds based on their weight and molecular structure, effectively giving the team a molecular ‘fingerprint’ for identifying the compounds.

By using high-resolution mass spectrometry, the team demonstrated that the benzothiazepines JTV-519 and S-107 can be detected in spiked urine at concentrations as low as 0.1 nanograms per millilitre.

‘We used the common approaches that are employed for detecting anabolic agents,’ Dr Thevis said. ‘Our work showed that we could identify the right compounds and that we have a sensitive test.’

The next step, according to the researchers, is to look for the molecules that emerge from the metabolic breakdown of the compounds once they have entered the human body. The answers will give the researchers a greater understanding of the compounds to be used when screening the samples of athletes.

It should be noted that only when a green light has been given for clinical trials can the compounds be given to humans. Until that day comes, the researchers will have to rely on bench studies using human microsomes, which are tiny vesicles that mimic cell metabolism.

More information:

  • German Sport University of Cologne
  • Drug Testing and Analysis
  • ‘The role of genes in doping tests’

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