Performance Analysis

New study raises questions about drug testing

Anabolic SteroidsSpend any amount of time reading the sports section these days and you’re sure to find another star athlete embroiled in some sort of performance enhancing drug related allegation. Track? Baseball? Football? Nascar? Pick your poison. The issue has so permeated the sporting world that not only has Congress felt the need to get involved, but even professional golfers have now been thrust into shadows of suspicion. Next thing you know, the World Series of Poker will be delayed by long lines of players having to pee into cups. Supposedly, the ‘taurine’ found in Red Bull helps mental prowess. Can we test for that too?

Testing for anabolic steroids was introduced in the 1970s, and some commentators remark that more stringent tests theoretically have lead, or ultimately will lead to, less “cheating”. But other, more cynical observers, argue just the opposite. Users become savvier, especially as you’ve got sites such as that offer people options to buy synthetic urine to pass the tests, the drugs become less detectable, and the overall problem proliferates, they maintain. With this being said, there are some people who may take performance-enhancing drugs and feel it is right at the moment but may regret it afterward. For them, finding ways to cover their tracks is what they think is best, as it saves the pitfalls they would have to go through. However, drug testing could end badly for players who are taking them. There are many sportsmen and women who find themselves having to deal with the downside of any drug-taking. For some, it may be perform-enhancing drugs and for others, it may be street drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Any could have a poor effect on those taking them. There are many who try their best to be cautious, using drug testing kits similar to this ehrlich reagent to ensure that they are getting an unaltered substance. However, it is still an issue in the sports community. As if the issue wasn’t thorny enough for athletes, professional leagues and drug testing organizations alike, a recent study just published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism by Jenny Jakobsson Schulze and her colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, suggests that “an individual’s genetic make-up could confound them in two different ways. One genotype, to use the jargon, may allow athletes who use anabolic steroids to escape detection altogether. Another may actually be convicting the innocent.” A recent Economist article (subscription required) summarizes the study’s findings, the conclusions of which should be duly noted by athletes and agents alike. Per the piece:

“The test usually employed for testosterone abuse relies on measuring the ratio of two chemicals found in the urine: testosterone glucuronide (TG) and epitestosterone glucuronide (EG). The former is produced when testosterone is broken down, while the latter is unrelated to testosterone metabolism, and can thus serve as a reference point for the test. Any ratio above four of the former to one of the latter is, according to official Olympic policy, considered suspicious and leads to more tests. However, the production of TG is controlled by an enzyme that is, in turn, encoded by a gene called UGT2B17. This gene comes in two varieties, one of which has a part missing and therefore does not work properly. A person may thus have none, one or two working copies of UGT2B17, since he inherits one copy from each parent. Dr Schulze guessed that different numbers of working copies would produce different test results. She therefore gave healthy male volunteers whose genes had been examined a single 360mg shot of testosterone (the standard dose for legitimate medical use) and checked their urine to see whether the shot could be detected. The result was remarkable. Nearly half of the men who carried no functional copies of UGT2B17 would have gone undetected in the standard doping test. By contrast, 14% of those with two functional copies of the gene were over the detection threshold before they had even received an injection. The researchers estimate this would give a false-positive testing rate of 9% in a random population of young men. Dr. Schulze also says there is substantial ethnic variation in UGT2B17 genotypes. Two-thirds of Asians have no functional copies of the gene (which means they have a naturally low ratio of TG to EG), compared with under a tenth of Caucasians-something the anti-doping bodies may wish to take into account.”

The study should serve to remind the general public that just because someone is accused of using performance enhancing drugs–be it by a Senator’s report, an ex-player’s book, or even the lab results of a respected professional’s scientific testing methods–it doesn’t necessarily mean a viable explanation or defense doesn’t exist. But it makes for good headlines.