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Role of Mass Spectrometry and Olympic Drug Testing

Anabolic steroids such as testosterone are used to build muscle, analgesics (including narcotics such as morphine) allow injured athletes to continue training, diuretics increase urine production and thus decrease a drug's concentration in the analyzed urine sample, peptide hormones such as human growth hormone stimulate tissue growth, and stimulants (including high levels of caffeine) enhance endurance.

An athlete fails testing if a banned substance not produced naturally by the body is identified. An example would be the presence of cocaine or amphetamine, or their metabolites. Testosterone is a naturally occuring hormone and acts as an anabolic agent. To limit testosterone abuse, Olympic officials have set the allowable urinary ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone (a normally occurring hormone that is not an anabolic steroid) at 6 to 1. Most men have a 1 to 1 ratio, but some athletes have a naturally higher testosterone level. This, of course, permits (male) athletes with a lower ratio to bulk up on testosterone until they reach the 6 to 1 limit. Another recourse available to athletes is to use a performance-enhancing drug not yet on the list of banned substances.

Anabolic steroids, analgesics, diuretics, and stimulants are analyzed by a gas chromatography mass spectrometer (GC-MS). This analysis allows for the detection of anabolic steroids at the part per billion level even when present in a complicated matrix such as urine. Corticosteroids, either given as is or induced in situ by the peptide hormone corticotrophin, are resolved by high-performance liquid chromatography mass spectrometers (HPLC-MS). Banned peptide hormones are further identified by immunoassays.

The testing for performance enhancing drugs faces an additional hurdle. Tests must be robust and accurate enough in order to be backed by world scientists and the IOC before they can be introduced at the Olympic Games. The Sydney Games hope to catch athletes using the drug erythropoietin (EPO) which increases the number of stamina-boosting red cells. SOCOG officials, however, are wary of the mistake made during the 1996 Atlanta Games when a new test for the banned stimulant bromantan failed to prove reliable and appeals by many athletes against positive tests were overturned. The SOCOG sees EPO as dangerous to athletes because it thickens the blood.

All of the mass spectrometry techniques help to achieve athletic performances that represent true human endurance and not drug induced accomplishments. MS approaches enable accurate results to be made available in just a few hours. Still the pressure for improved performances, where a tiny fraction of a second can mean the difference between a gold and silver medal, will lead some athletes to use drugs during competition no matter the risks involved.


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