Infographic: How to Catch Cheating Athletes
Infographic: How to Catch Cheating Athletes

Infographic: How to Catch Cheating Athletes

Anti-doping agencies are tracking levels of various molecules in athletes’ blood and urine over time to increase their ability to detect drug misuse.

Sep 1, 2019
Anna Azvolinsky

The World Anti-Doping Agency recently developed and instituted the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP), a tools that helps anti-doping organizations  track levels of various molecules in competitive athletes. In 2009, WADA published formal guidelines on how to conduct standardized testing for evidence of blood doping, including how to track athletes’ longitudinal data as part of the ABP’s blood module, which includes 14 bloodborne biomarkers to indicate misuse of erythropoietin (EPO), blood transfusions, or other forms of doping using  blood samples.

In 2014, WADA added the steroidal module to track the levels of testosterone and other steroids. These sets of tests can detect exogenously administered steroids, their various metabolites, precursors, and related molecules to better nail down doping as well as other anabolic agents. Tracking these markers over time is also a way to identify samples that may have been tampered with or exchanged with the urine sample of another individual, as happened with the Russian Olympic team during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. 

Erythropoietin (EPO)

A circulating glycoprotein cytokine and essential hormone for red blood cell production in the bone marrow. In response to cellular hypoxia, the kidneys and liver secrete EPO. Doping with recombinant EPO or other agents that stimulate the production of red blood cells increases the availability of oxygen to muscles, which boosts performance and enhances aerobic power for endurance sports.

Testing for EPO is part of the blood module: Detected in urine by distinguishing the glycosylation profiles of naturally occurring EPO from the various versions of recombinant EPO using  protein electrophoresis. Also detected indirectly in the blood by measuring related markers including hemoglobin, hematocrit, and reticulocytes.

Blood Transfusions

Similar to EPO, blood transfusions increase the availability of oxygen to the muscles to boost performance and enhance aerobic power for endurance sports by increasing the amount of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the body. Transfusions can be with an individual’s own blood, known as an autologous transfusion or a homologous transfusion using donor blood.  Monitoring for blood abnormalities due to  blood transfusions is another part of the blood module.

Testing for homologous blood transfusions: A blood test looks for multiple red blood cell populations by identifying different antigen molecules. 

Testing for autologous transfusions: Available tests are imperfect and indirectly measure biomarkers such as the number of immature red blood cells known as reticulocytes. Plasticizer tests can also be performed to look indirectly for the remnants of plastics used in blood storage bags.

Testosterone

A steroid hormone taken by athletes to enhance protein synthesis and muscle growth. Testosterone is naturally synthesized from cholesterol in men and is present in smaller amounts in women.

Testing for testosterone is part of the steroid module: Typically measured in the urine in relation to related molecules such as the testosterone isomer epitestosterone. The naturally occurring ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone is about (1:1). When athletes fall outside of their normal range, labs conduct further analysis using isotope-ratio mass spectrometry to confirm exogenous steroid administration.  Four other testosterone-related markers are tested as part of the steroidal module.

Growth hormone (GH)

A naturally occurring peptide hormone made by the pituitary gland that boosts muscle strength, can increase sprint capacity, and is thought to help muscle recovery. 

Testing for GH is not currently part of the ABP, but an endocrine module is currently in development: A blood-based isoform test detects the ratio of various GH isoforms. A second blood test measures two GH-related biomarkers that increase following a GH dose. These two tests, along with measures of additional biomarkers, will form the basis of the future ABP endocrine module.

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