WELLINGTON: Researchers at New Zealand's Otago University are hailing a "breakthrough" in the fight against drug cheats with a non-targeted test for designer steroids which they hope can be deployed in time for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Professor Alison Heather, who led the development of the test, said it would detect designer anabolic steroids before anti-doping authorities were aware they even existed.
"It's a breakthrough in that it's a non-targeted test, so we don't need to know the structure for what we're fishing for in order to be able to detect a designer anabolic steroid," Heather told Reuters by telephone from Dunedin.
Heather said she first considered developing the test in 2004 when she started researching the use of tetrohydogestrinone (THG), the drug developed by the BALCO laboratory in San Francisco nicknamed "The Clear".
American sprinter Marion Jones was one of many high-profile athletes who ultimately admitted to using it.
Heather said that drug had been used by athletes for some seven years before testers were even aware it existed.
"We called it a designer steroid because it had a structure that nobody knew about," she said.
"If nobody knows about it, there's no fingerprint for mass spectrometry so it goes undetected. Since then I was thinking that we need a non-targeted test."
The new test did not search for specific markers but focussed on detecting changes at the cellular level.
"All anabolic steroids … activate a common pathway inside the cell so I have exploited that pathway to build the test," she said.
"If they want to have an anabolic effect in their body they have to activate the cellular pathway and our test will pick up any drug that activates that anabolic pathway.
"So for once we're on a level footing. We don't need to wait for somebody to have some anomaly in their blood work saying, 'hey they're taking something but we don't know what it is' to find it. We can see that there is something there."
Heather said designer steroids were still being developed and sold over the Internet, despite the widespread implementation of biological passports in elite sport.
The test would show any anomalies in that passport, which is a profile of biological markers that detect changes over time as athletes undergo regular in- and out-of-competition testing.