11:44pm Saturday 25 January 2020

New DNA test can catch elite cheats

James Rupert says genetic technology can help catch athletes who use blood transfusions to boost performance. Photo: Martin Dee

Researchers at UBC have developed a new way to detect blood doping using DNA.

James Rupert, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology, and Irina Manokhina, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC, say their study provides proof that genetic technology can be used in doping control.

The US Anti-Doping Agency, which funded the research recently published in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, currently tests for signs of homologous blood doping, in which blood is transferred from one donor to another, by examining proteins in blood.

“The technology that makes DNA based tests possible is polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – the ability to amplify DNA to a high resolution, which cannot be done with proteins,” he says. “This method would be faster, easier and more cost-effective than current strategies.”

More cost-effective

Using PCR, white blood cells are inspected for different populations of genes (red blood cells do not carry DNA).  The test, which looks at roughly 10 variants, will show if the subject has tampered with his or her blood by revealing genetic variance indicating the presence of a second person’s cells.

“Genetic technology could be used as a disincentive for blood doping”

According to Rupert, even if an athlete were to remove as much as 99.9 per cent of the white blood cells from the blood that they transfuse into their body, the technique would detect the doping.

Blood doping works by increasing the number of person’s red blood cells, which carry oxygen, helping to improve aerobic capacity and performance in endurance sports such as cycling, cross-country skiing, marathon running, or soccer.

It can be a dangerous practice, says Rupert, with the possibility of transferring a blood borne disease, like HIV or hepatitis, or the extra red blood cells increasing the workload on the heart.

Blood doping was legal up until 1986, two years after the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles where the U.S. Olympic cycling team, including four medalists, were found to have used blood transfusions to boost their performance. Following this controversy, the International Olympic Committee banned the practice.

An athlete can perform blood doping in two ways, explains Rupert: either a transfusion of 500 milliliters of someone else’s blood (using a matching blood type) or, by extracting blood from your own arm, storing it and then re-injecting it back into your veins after your body has replaced the blood that’s been withdrawn.

The researchers had hoped to eliminate the use of needles altogether to collect blood samples, opting to use lancets to prick the finger to collect a drop of blood for testing, but initial attempts at using such a small volume of blood were unsuccessful.

Critics say collecting DNA is not ethical

Genetic technology is not without its critics. Some have raised the question of whether collecting people’s genetic data for non-medical purposes is ethical.

“The genetic variants we are testing for the purpose of blood doping detection has no clinical application,” says Rupert. “But the DNA could be tested for anything. Many people will have concerns over privacy rights if anti-doping authorities start collecting and storing DNA samples.”

Rupert believes the DNA-based method has the potential to act as a pre-screen test allowing the more expensive protein test to be used for confirmation of positive findings.

“Genetic technology could be used as a disincentive for blood doping,” says Rupert. “It’s not a substitute for the existing test, but in the future, it could be.”

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