On-Site Drug Detection May Soon Be Possible

Costas Georgakopoulos, PhD, and his colleagues in Greece are working to create technologies that enable officials to quickly discover whether athletes--animals or people--are using illegal substances or exceeding the allowable levels of legal medications.

"The fight between laboratories and dopers is a continuous war," he told The Horse. "The trend is to make the analytical procedures faster, simpler, and more cost effective," said Georgakopoulos, the director of the Doping Control Laboratory of Athens.

The group has been looking at urine tests to detect substances. One recent study found that it accurately detected high levels of salicylic acid (aspirin). Aspirin can reduce pain, inflammation, and fever and is used legitimately in horses. The compound can be found in some plants, so there could be trace amounts in a horse's blood or urine just from eating. However, large amounts are often banned in sporting events.

"In the late 1980s, Article 6 of the International Agreement on Breeding and Racing allowed the introduction of threshold values for endogenous substances and substances of dietary origin," said Georgakopoulos. Salicylic acid is prohibited in that agreement if its concentrations exceed 750 μg mL−1 in urine or 6.5 μg mL−1 in plasma.

"For this reason, identification and quantitative methods need to be developed and validated by the doping control laboratories," said Georgakopoulos.

The researchers used a combination of two technologies--chromatography, where the ingredients of the urine are separated from each other, and mass spectrometry, where the separated ingredients are identified and measured.

"I think one day, not far from now, on-site detection of doping will become feasible, at least for drugs like aspirin," he said.

The study, "Direct injection horse urine analysis for the quantification and identification of threshold substances for doping control. III. Determination of salicylic acid by liquid chromatography/quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry," was published in November in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry. The abstract is available on PubMed.

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