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40 years of drug testing at the Olympics

It is almost exactly 40 years since drug tests were first conducted at the Olympic Games. Now they are an unfortunate but essential facet of the Games. Scientific advances, and advances in mass spectrometry in particular, have enabled the authorities to keep pace with attempts by drug cheats to avoid detection. The latest developments in the use of mass spectrometry for sports drug testing are highlighted in a special issue* of the European Journal of Mass Spectrometry.
The special issue has been edited by Mario Thevis of the Center for Preventive Doping Research, German Sport University Cologne and contains papers from leading experts from doping control laboratories throughout Europe.

Currently, more than 500 prohibited drugs can be detected by means of “conventional” chromatographic/mass spectrometric approaches, and numerous additional doping violations including the misuse of endogenous hormones such as testosterone or peptides and proteins can be identified by more specialised analysers such as isotope-ratio or high resolution/high accuracy mass spectrometers. The great variety of assays employed by sports drug testing laboratories and the continuous search for more efficient, comprehensive and retrospective methods demonstrates the complexity of doping controls and the need to cover the most diverse classes of analytes including lipids, carbohydrates, peptides, proteins, and other low- and high-molecular weight xenobiotics. Consequently, sports drug testing has always been highly dynamic, and current and future challenges as well as suggested solutions are described in this special issue.

Mario Thevis explains, “Major goals of research in sports drug testing are to close gaps, which cheating athletes might use to illicitly increase their performance, and to develop detection strategies for new, emerging drugs that possess potential for misuse when becoming commercially available. Preventive doping research is a central aspect that allows drug testing authorities to catch up with those sportsmen that might take the bait of a new compound, which they consider undetectable.”

A new class of agents has been added to the list of prohibited substances and methods of doping in 2008: the selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs). Although not yet clinically approved, WADA banned these compounds from sports and a new detection method as well as a strategy to prepare and characterise a target metabolite in doping control urine specimens is described in this special issue of European Journal of Mass Spectrometry.

“Fast, comprehensive, and unambiguous screening and confirmation methods are of great importance and benefit for routine doping controls. In particular, in light of the continuously increasing number of analytes, the limited sample volume and the need to rapidly report analytical results during great sporting events such as the Olympic Games, the development of new and/or improvement of existing mass spectrometry-based assays is always highly appreciated,” said Mario Thevis.

The special issue also describes the utility of ultrahigh-performance liquid chromatography (UPLC) combined with mass spectrometry, which offers the possibility to accelerate drug testing procedures for diuretics and other doping agents. In addition, optimised sample preparation steps combined with dedicated LC-MS/MS setups enable the rapid detection and separation of numerous stimulants. Finally, a screening procedure potentially allowing for a pre-selection of urine samples for time-consuming erythropoietin (EPO) analysis is presented, which is based on the determination of low molecular weight parameters that are influenced by EPO applications.

*Eur. J. Mass Spectrom. 14(3), 117–289 (2008)