Doping - Suspicious fingerprints in urine samples

Arbeit im Labor

Re-tests of Olympic doping samples

Doping - Suspicious fingerprints in urine samples

Von Thilo Neumann and Hajo Seppelt

101 doping cases, 55 medal winners amongst them - re-testing procedures of Olympic doping specimen have exposed alleged sports heroes by the dozen during the past years. German scientists have a huge share in these proceedings: New and improved detection methods for doping substances are developed at the Cologne Control Laboratory.

When Artur Taymazov returns from Bejing to his home country Uzbekistan, after the 2008 Olympic Games, the wrestler is celebrated as a national hero. For his gold medal in the freestyle category, up to 120 kilograms, he is even awarded a medal for exceptional service to his country as the most successful Olympic athlete in the nation's history.

Almost eight years later the fairytale of Artur Taymazov is destroyed - re-tests of doping samples from Beijing 2008 show traces of anabolic agents in his urine: Stanozolol and Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone, better known as Oral Turinabol. Classic doping agents that have always been specified on the World Anti-doping Agency's prohibited list. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), initiator of the re-tests, recalled Taymazovs gold medal - the idol of back then is unmasked as a fraud.

Doping below the radar level

Stanozolol and Oral Turinabol, long-known doping substances, had already been misused for illegal improvements in performance during the 1980’s. Why, however, had the substances not been detected in Taymazov directly after the fight for gold in Beijing? Had there been measuring mistakes - or was there planning behind it?

It is neither one, nor the other. Instead, the wrestler's sample only contained very low levels of the prohibited substances. Too low, in fact, to be detected by the analytical methods of the time. Doping below the radar level of the inspectors.

New measuring methods

In the end, the Uzbek was caught nevertheless, thanks to new measuring methods - developed by the Centre for Preventive Doping Research (Zentrum für präventive Dopingforschung, or ZePräDo), located on the seventh floor of an unremarkable high-rise building in the west of Cologne. Here, on the German Sports University's Campus, scientists are working on the refinement of existing measuring techniques in order to catch dopers. The improved and more precise verification of Stanozolol was developed in this doping control laboratory, in between potted flowers and buzzing refrigerators that are filled with athletes' urine samples.

The new analysis technique, used to detect Oral Turinabol and developed by the control laboratory in Moscow, is based on findings from Cologne as well. "We applied the new measuring technique for the first time in 2013", says Hans Geyer, the executive director of ZePräDo. "Instead of one positive Oral Turinabol report we've had 80 cases that year. The case number of Stanozolol rose from 20, or 30, to abtut 180 cases that year." Doping athletes who hadn't feared being found out until then were caught in series.

Detective work in scrubs

Mario Thevis

Mario Thevis

The quest for new procedures is significantly fuelled by Geyer's colleagues, Wilhelm Schänzer and Mario Thevis. They rank among the world's most renowned experts on doping analysis, performing detective work in scrubs. "We are looking for chemical fingerprints of illegal substances in the urine samples", Thevis explains. "However, we don't attest the doping drugs themselves, but the substances the athlete's body produces from these drugs during metabolic processes, the so-called metabolites." In this, Thevis uses the help of an unimpressive grey plastic box, abtut the size of a suitcase for carry-on luggage: a mass spectrometre. Inside this device, the samples of world stars and up-and-coming athletes are divided into smallest bits; molecules are transformed into ions and dissected. From these tiny pieces all the substances that are resolved in the urine can be detected, because each array of chemical fragments is as unique as a human fingerprint.

Pioneer role

Schänzer and Thevis fulfil a pioneer role in this sleuthing, as their research is opening up new detection methods for the global fight against doping. Until a few years ago it was only possible to detect short-term metabolites - substances that remain in the body for a maximum of two to five days. Following this, methods for the detection of long-term metabolites in urine samples were developed in the Cologne Laboratory. "Today we are able to verify some drugs ten to a hundred times longer then only ten or 15 years ago", Thevis confirms. The scientists' principals benefit hugely from these improvements, first and foremost the IOC. The committee ordered more than 1,500 urine samples from the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and the 2012 Olympics in London to be re-examined. Because of this, 101 dopers who had not been caught before were convicted, and 55 medals were revoked. This was possible above all thanks to the Cologne Research. Additionally, due to the improved detection methods for Stanozolol and Oral Turinabol, new measurement techniques for Metandienon, Osandrolon, and Ipamorelin - all of which have been found in Olympic samples - are based on the work of ZePräDo as well.

Tests have a deterrent effect

"The long-term storage and the reanalysis of the samples are good and important steps of the IOC", scientist Geyer says. He attributes this to two main reasons: for one, these tests have a deterrent effect on potential cheaters who run the risk of being found out, even years after their illegally obtained achievements. Secondly, he believes clean athletes are now able to deflect unsubstantiated doping accusations - the procedures make it possible to demonstrate that top performances have almost certainly been achieved without the aid of doping substances.

Meanwhile in Cologne, the development of new measuring techniques continues; a detection method for gene doping substances is available and ready for use according to the scientists' own statements. In addition, Mario Thevis has designed a system that could facilitate the logistics of re-testing: A digital matrix model would allow for the updated testing of a urine sample, even years after the original analysis, by employing only a few mouse clicks. This way the scientist could check if the sample is still doping-free according to the newest scientific findings, taking into consideration specific substances that were presumably disregarded before, without having to fetch the sample from the cold-storage room again. Both procedures have scarcely been noticed by international organisations.

A race against time

This is surprising, considering the continued battle against dopers is also a race against time. According to WADA-guidelines, urine samples can only be stored and reanalysed for a maximum of ten years. Yet cheaters keep engineering new ways and means to obtain illegal advantages - often in ways that inspectors haven't even yet considered. At the beginning of 2017, for example, it came to be known that three Chinese weightlifters were doped with the peptide hormone GHRP-2 at the 2008 Olympics; a substance that wasn't even approved at the time of the summer games. All three athletes won the gold medal in their respective weight categories, and were able to adorn themselves with the honour of an Olympic victory as undetected dopers. That is until they were found out, with the aid of a detection procedure for GHRP-2, which was developed as a cooperation between the control labs in Cologne and Tokyo.

Methods are being enhanced, reaction times are getting shorter; a development that is also noticed by the athletes. "The gap between scammers and doping analytics is decreasing", Hans Geyer says. "And the athletes are aware of that. Therefore, we believe that we won't have the same amount of positive reports in reanalysis in the future." Prevention as deterrence - the Cologne way is shaping global sports.

Stand: 11.07.2017, 14:00