Gatekeeper for clean sports
Don Catlin, one of the world’s top antidoping researchers, is tired of chasing down drugs. Now, he wants to help clean athletes prove their innocence.
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In fact, drug testing was so primitive then that Catlin couldn’t even detect a steroid he had knowingly taken as an experiment. Now he and fellow researchers worldwide have developed a sophisticated battery of tests for dozens of drugs. One can even prove that an athlete doped without needing to know what drug was used.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet even with all this savvy, the sports world is in something of a nuclear arms race. Almost as quickly as scientists can devise new tests, pharmaceutical companies pump out new drugs that dopers can abuse – or that allied chemists can tweak to foil current tests.
“Sometimes you can add a hydrogen or carbon molecule that would modify the weight of the product, and then you can’t scan for it,” says Sabrina Benchaar, whom Catlin hired in April at his new firm, Anti-Doping Research (ADR).
Dr. Benchaar’s current project shows how difficult the task can be. She is trying to develop a way to detect human growth hormone (HGH) in urine samples. Though the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has piloted a blood test for HGH, two of the biggest professional sports organizations – Major League Baseball and the National Football League – have said they’re waiting for more scientific validation, and players’ unions have opposed blood testing. If researchers could develop a foolproof HGH urine test, it could do much to clean up the dugout and the sidelines.
It isn’t just a matter of slipping a slide under a microscope. Human urine contains more than 1,500 proteins. Even Catlin admits the HGH test “is probably the most difficult test in this whole field.” Benchaar, however, is convinced it can be done – maybe even in six months. She describes the intricate work of one of the lab’s machines, a $1 million “Orbitrap,” that dissects chains of amino acids as if throwing a pearl necklace at a wall. The smaller strands, or “pearls,” can then be identified and synthetic proteins singled out.
In contrast to HGH testing, the process for detecting known steroids and amphetamines is far more developed and precise. It begins with an official collecting urine samples from athletes at competitions or on surprise visits, and marking them with anonymous codes.
When samples arrive at the lab, researchers submit them to rigorous chemical testing, ultimately producing printouts that look like saw-toothed mountain ranges. If the “ridge” lines match up with those of a known drug, then it’s considered a positive.
More subjective is the urine test for the endurance-booster EPO. Catlin scrolls through images on his computer that look like X-rays of rattlesnake tails. Standing behind his chair, Dr. Caroline Hatton – his quality-control czarina for more than two decades – explains how technicians evaluate the darkness of the strips, comparing them with samples known to contain EPO and with ones that don’t. But it’s still an imperfect science. In June, a Danish study revealed that two different WADA-accredited labs – one of which faulted the study’s methodology – came up with different results for the same samples, adding to the debate over EPO testing.