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The future of drug testing in cycling

James Witts
4 Jan 2017

With doping in pro cycling back in the news, we talk to the scientists developing new ways of beating the cheats – if they ever get used

Russia’s Olympic scandal, Fancy Bears, TUEs, Team Sky’s mysterious package – doping is very much back in the news.

The consensus seems to be that things are not as bad as they were in the Armstrong era, but athlete surveys and the UCI’s CIRC report suggest the number of sportsmen and women doping is still likely between 14% and 39%.

Yet despite the introduction of the Athlete Biological Passport in 2009, the percentage of athletes failing drug tests each year remains between 1% and 2%. 

Yes, there have been victories, with the blood passport credited with hugely reducing the use of EPO in the peloton.

But as BBC investigative journalist Mark Daly showed in 2015, it’s easy to beat the passport by micro-dosing, even without the historic diluting agent of water.

It makes depressing reading but some scientists claim to have created new ways of catching the dopers.

The gene screen

Yannis Pitsiladis is professor of sport and exercise science at the University of Brighton.

He’s also a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Medical and Scientific Commission, and has spent much of his career researching genes.

It’s through the study of ‘omics’, which examines gene activity, that Pitsiladis is confident he’s created a test that detects micro-dosing.

‘We’ve taken blood from athletes at altitude and while training and have managed to eliminate any genetic overlaps,’ he says.

‘We’ve spent the past two years testing, independently and in our laboratories, and the data is simply phenomenal. We can even differentiate the genetic differences between blood transfusions and EPO.’

Genetic imprint

Pitsiladis’s test examines the genetic imprint of injecting EPO. While a drug is taking effect, thousands of messenger molecules called mRNA (ribonucleic acid) transcribe instructions for making proteins that are the building blocks of life – in the case of EPO, an increase in red blood cells.

Unlike blood and urine tests that measure the short-term markers of doping, Pitsiladis’s ‘breakthrough’ delves much deeper, isolating the genetic fingerprint.

So why isn’t this test supporting the blood passport? Simple – cost. Pitsiladis and his like around the world are in constant search of funding.

To highlight the fiscal struggle, Pitsiladis interrupts our phone interview to take a call. Sixty minutes tick by before he rings back.

‘I’ve just received notification that the IOC has rejected my bid for $750,000 of funding based on being too broad,’ he tells me.

‘I translate “too broad” as being too expensive. Powerful people in sport then phoned me to say that this is unacceptable.’

Pitsiladis is ever the optimist and has another $4 million bid pending. Straight after our interview he is off to Italy in search of funding from private investors, which clearly grates.

‘I’m solely reliant on BioTech firms at the moment as I haven’t received a dollar of funding from WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] and the IOC for the past two years. That’s not how it should be.’

The power passport

Lack of investment stalling progress isn’t the preserve of Pitsiladis. At June’s World Cycling Science Conference in Caen, France, sports scientists Louis Passfield and James Hopker presented their ideas for a power passport.

‘The idea is that we monitor riders’ power data over time,’ says Passfield from Calgary, Canada, where he’s on a year’s education sabbatical from his job at the University of Kent.

‘The concept is that we monitor patterns and, if we observe a disproportionate return from training, it could be a sign of doping.’

Passfield concedes data differences between power meters – even variations between identical power meters – is an issue to resolve, but highlights that the power passport will complement the biological version, not usurp it. 

‘James and I showed the idea to WADA earlier in the year. One of the professors in attendance was Martial Saugy, who co-created the biological passport.

He thought the idea sounded fantastic as he’d never intended the passport to be solely blood-based.’

Accurate picture

Passfield stresses these are early days, and the power passport would need the support of pro teams to paint an accurate picture of how an elite rider’s power profile changes not only over seasons but also within a single season.

Most riders who race the brutal cobbles in the spring, for instance, will shed weight for the mountains come July. That would affect power output and power-to-weight ratio. 

‘But it’s a big data world,’ Passfield adds. ‘Tied in with accurate algorithms, we’d get there. We’d also link it to training. Most power meters have GPS capability so you’ll know where the rider is and what training they’re doing.’

Warning signs

Passfield argues behavioural changes would be monitored, too. A reluctance to hand over power data, a rider who has data gaps and one whose values jump erratically will act as warning signs. The potential is there but, again, funding is an issue.

‘To get things off the ground will be labour-intensive and that requires investment. Unfortunately, WADA has already told us they won’t fund it at the moment.

But we’ve approached PCC [Partnership for Clean Competition], which supports anti-doping research, and CADF [Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation]. That’s the UCI’s anti-doping arm and is funded by pro teams. You can’t be a pro team without contributing.

That potentially gives teams leverage on where the CADF funding goes.’ In the cut-throat business of pro cycling, you can only speculate whether that’s a good thing or not.

Distributing the wealth

WADA is currently funded to the tune of $28 million annually. WADA’s science director Dr Oliver Rabin, who wasn’t available for interview for this feature due to ‘travel commitments’, has been quoted as saying technologies like those developed by Pitsiladis ‘are very expensive.

‘We might say we agree that this is excellent science but we have to break that funding down, distributing funding among different research teams’.

That’s the crux. Examine WADA’s list of current anti-doping projects and you discover that most are sociology-based, rather than more expensive tests involving hard science – about education rather than financing physical tests.

The disparity is down to WADA’s funding model, which is a 50/50 split between the Olympic movement and global governments, and the politics at play.

Donating a chunk of the budget to one North European scientist could threaten future contributions from America or the Far East, even if, in Pitsiladis’s words, ‘currently, elite sport is in a mess’.

A question of money

Plenty of anti-doping tests are rarely used due to cost. Currently, the T/E test is used to identify potential testosterone dopers, and works by measuring the relationship between testosterone and epitestosterone.

The problem is, testosterone abuse has evolved. Synthetic steroids taken by mouth leave long-term metabolic markers because they get into the intestinal tract and liver.

Now riders are increasingly using plant-based testosterone administered in ways that sidestep the liver, such as patches or gels. In many experts’ eyes, this makes the T/E test near-redundant.

But there is an alternative – the CIR test. This is the more comprehensive carbon isotope ratio test that should register far more positives for one of the most abused drugs in sport.

The test extends the detection period for gels and creams from a few hours to several days but, at around $400 a test and two-and-half analysis days, it’s more than twice the cost of the T/E test. 

Lip service

WADA president Craig Reedie has suggested dopers donate winnings gained by nefarious means to the battle against doping but that’s mere lip service to a deeper problem.

Sceptics suggest with so much money swilling around elite sport, is there really the political will to finance tests that could threaten the bank balances of the financial elite? That’s open to debate. But despite the setbacks, Pitsiladis feels a corner might soon be turned. 

‘Do the organisations involved want to solve the problem? Yes. It’s just that certain people high up are past their sell-by date. But change is imminent. I can’t say any more but when it happens, I’m confident there will be progress.’

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