Mass Spectrometry and Illicit Drug Testing: Analytical Challenges of the Anti-doping Laboratories

Francesco Botrè


Expert Rev Proteomics. 2008;5(4):535-539. 

In This Article

The New Frontier: Mass Spectrometry & Gene Doping

The latest advancement in the development of gene, cell and tissue therapies poses a new challenge for the anti-doping system, and in particular for the laboratory scientists. It is becoming more and more common to consider gene doping the last frontier in the recourse to illicit performance-enhancing drugs and methods in sport.

As in any other area of medical sciences and also in the field of gene technology, the continuous evolution of knowledge, techniques and methods can produce new tools for the development of novel forms of doping but, at the same time, also of new strategies for their possible detection. And, as for any other area of medical science, a correct discrimination between therapy and abuse is mandatory to identify the possible threat both to the health and to the fairness of sport competitions. Also in this field, the limit between therapy and doping should be the same as that which distinguishes "replacement" from "enhancement" in other forms of medical support to the athletes. This gives a further complication to the possible detection methods that will need to be developed and applied to identify gene doping in sport.

In this sense, it is likely that the most effective detection strategies will be based on the combination of direct and indirect methods (aimed respectively at the identification of the markers of exposure and of the markers of effect of gene doping). Among them, it is likely that, especially in the development of direct methods, a decisive contribution will also derive from an effective application of advanced MS techniques (e.g., MALDI-TOF).[20]

The WADA has already sponsored a significant number of research projects with the aim of keeping the pace with cheaters and to not find the testers, and with them the entire anti-doping system, vulnerable whenever gene doping becomes a real threat.

A final consideration is for the protection of the health of the athletes: we are used to consider sport doping mainly as a problem of fair competition. Nonetheless, doping is indeed cheating, but cheating putting at risk not only the loyalty of honest athletes, but also the health of those aiming to improve their sport performance by recourse to illicit medical and pharmacological strategies. It would be useful to highlight this in all contexts, also in the hope that the forensic activity of the WADA-accredited laboratories will be supported and complemented by deeper scientific investigations on the health risks associated to the abuse of performance-enhancing substances and methods.[21]


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