Diagnostics; making a difference

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Diagnostics Blog


Olympic feats in diagnostics

Aug 06 2012

The Olympics are here and, although no one in the BIVDA office has had their travel route drastically disturbed, they are just as nail-biting as we all hoped. 10,500 athletes from 204 countries have gathered in London for the first time since 1948 to test their power, strength and stamina. At the time of writing this blog – on a sunny Friday afternoon – sixteen new world records had been set at the games. Three of these by Team GB cyclists!

It isn’t just the steady trickle of medals which has been creating a buzz in the office. We are also extremely please to see diagnostic technology playing such an important role in Olympic legacy. Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the Olympic drug-testing laboratories, located in Harlow, will be converted into a £10 million world-class research centre after the games. The MRC-NIHR Phenome Centre, the first of its kind in the world, will use cutting edge facilities developed for London 2012 to help develop better and more targeted treatment for patients. It will enable researchers to explore the characteristics of disease in order to develop new drugs and treatments for patients. This is cutting edge stratified medicines research at its best and in-vitro diagnostic technology is essential for taking it into the future.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "We want to create a world-class NHS that makes the latest and best treatments available to patients. Our investment in the new MRC-NIHR Phenome Centre, the first of its kind, promises better targeted treatments for patients with a wide range of common diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and dementia."

However, the Olympics are still going strong, and testing plays a significant role in the life of each athlete who keeps our eyes glued to giant screens in Greenwich Park. These games look set to perform more tests than any other with an estimated 6000 samples to be taken between the start and the end of the Olympic Games. The anti-doping lab will test up to 400 samples a day for more than 240 prohibited substances. Each and every competitor who is skilled enough to win a medal will be tested, as will those coming in fourth and fifth. Additionally, two competitors from each event will be selected at random for testing.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was formed in 1999 to promote, co-ordinate and monitor the fight against drugs in sport. WADA is responsible for the World Anti-Doping Code, adopted by more than 600 sports organizations, including international sports federations, national anti-doping organizations, the IOC, and the International Paralympic Committee. WADA is supported at a national level by International Federations. The UK federation is called UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) it has been working hard in the Harlow labs to ensure the Olympics is a drug-free competition. Duties required by UKAD by the World Anti-Doping Code include conducting testing at all UK competitions and out-of-competitions; providing education programs; and sanctioning those who commit anti-doping rule violations.

You can learn more about UKAD standards and procedure by reading their documents:

Athlete testing procedures
Athletes whereabouts and testing
Laboratory practices   

So far, the 1000 laboratory staff in Harlow have uncovered five athletes using one of the 240 WADA banned substances. They have all been suspended from the games. The substances uncovered were EPO, a human hormone which aids production of red blood cells; Testosterone, a male hormone which is used as a steroid; Furosemide, which is banned due to its alleged use for masking other drugs; another steroid, Stanozolol.

However, not all doping infractions are easily detected by a testing a blood sample. Autologous blood doping is the practice of removing and storing one’s own blood some time before competing. In the time between removing the blood and competing the blood has naturally replenished itself. Therefore, when the blood is re-injected into the body the red blood cell count is boosted. As red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, a higher concentration in the blood can improve an athlete’s aerobic capacity and endurance. While a test for heterologous blood transfusions (blood from a donor rather than the athlete) has been in use since 2000, there is no accepted test for autologous blood transfusions. There are two suggested methods for detecting autologous transfusions. First is to detect unusually high haematocrit and haemoglobin levels, but this occurs in some athletes naturally. The second is to compare the levels of mature and immature red blood cells. If a high number of mature red blood cells is not accompanied by a high number of immature red blood cells it suggests that the mature red blood cells were artificially introduced by transfusion.

These methods, however, are the source of much controversy, with concerns being raised that threshold levels may be established arbitrarily and cause false positives. Research is underway by WADA, and they have confirmed that they do intend to issue a test for autologous blood transfusions, but it is customary for developments in anti-doping tests to remain top secret in order to avoid giving doping athletes advanced warnings about the introduction of new tests. 

IVDs aren't just useful to athletes within the context of anti-doping. Labs such as Randox also provide tests which help athletes examine the function of various biological components, and provide a complete picture of changes in, their most essential tools - their bodies. Cardiac health, immune system and hormonal assessment, the success of training programmes and nutrition plans - these can all be monitored by a variety of IVD tests.

To read about another side of sports testing, click here.  

The above pictures on this blog are from the installation, Doping Thrower, by Cuban artist Erik Ravelo which was on show at the Dray Walk Gallery (the Old Truman Brewery) over the weekend. Gemma went to take a look at it on Saturday in order to research this blog.

Randox Laboratories: http://www.randox.com/  

UK Anti-Doping: http://www.ukad.org.uk/

World Anti-Doping: http://www.wada-ama.org/ 

Don't forget to let us know if you'd like to team up for #TestingTuesday. Also follow us @BIVDA for Olympic tweets all Tuesday 7th August. Go Team GB!