For this sport, so to speak, the venue is not Olympic Stadium or the Aquatics Centre in London, but a drug-testing lab in suburban Harlow that accounts for most of GlaxoSmithKline’s £20 million ($31.2 million) Olympics contribution. The lab tests about 5,000 samples (up from 4,770 at Beijing 2008), and another 1,250 from athletes with disabilities at the companion Paralympics.
Some 150 scientists led by David Cowan, Ph.D., co-founder and director of the Drug Control Centre at King’s College London, are testing samples for some 240 banned substances at the lab, which operates 24/7 during the Games and can turn around most tests in 24 hours. That requires completing analysis in eight hours, so that the remaining time can be used for possible retesting and confirming results.
Most banned drugs are screened through mass spectrometry—either gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC/MS) or liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC/MS). Dr. Cowan’s team uses Waters ACQUITY UPLC®/tandem mass specs; Waters has no GC/MS tools.
Also at the lab are GE Healthcare ImageQuant™ LAS4000 digital imagers for detecting EPO and other biomolecules. Proteins are enriched, separated using isoelectric focusing, then transferred via Western blot to filter membranes and probed with antibody conjugates, resulting in emission of light by the imagers. Those tests take 48 hours, compared with one day for GC/MS or LC/MS tests.
“Endogenous EPO and recombinant EPO differ slightly in the overall charge of the molecule. Using the highly sensitive imager, you can see the bands that relate to naturally occurring and recombinant EPO,” Pilar Anton Serrano, global communications manager for GE Healthcare’s Detection & Guidance Solutions business, told GEN.
After the Olympics, the testing lab will see much of its equipment replaced with tools better suited for its future function as site of the MRC-NIHR Phenome Centre. Rohit Khanna, Ph.D., Waters’ VP, worldwide marketing, told GEN of one example: Waters will replace the lab’s mass specs with its Xevo and SYNAPT mass specs designed for phenotypic testing.
“We will share what we have learned in setting up the lab for London with the IOC and hope that we can deliver a ‘blueprint’ for future Games. We have already shared lessons learnt in setting up the lab for London 2012 with colleagues in Rio (de Janeiro),” site of the 2016 Summer Olympics, Glaxo spokeswoman Sarah Alspach told GEN.
Those lessons should include improving on London 2012 by random-testing all Olympic athletes at Rio. Before Delpopolo’s expulsion, five athletes were ejected by IOC, and numerous others by national sports bodies, for testing positive before events. They include Albanian weightlifter Hysen Pulaku (the anabolic steroid stanozolol) and Uzbek gymnast Luiza Galiulina (the diuretic furosemide).
“If you win gold, that’s what it’s all about. And some people are willing to take the risk of doping because they feel that winning is more important than cheating,” Dr. Butch said.
While today’s testing makes it unrealistic to expect a cheat-free Olympics anytime soon, that shouldn’t stop IOC and national bodies from showing the same commitment to stepping up drug testing that manufacturers show toward improving the equipment used for catching the cheaters.