A new way to detect blood doping using DNA has been developed by researchers at the University of British Columbia.
This study provides proof that genetic technology can be used in doping control, said James Rupert, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology, and Irina Manokhina, a postdoctoral fellow. The study was recently published in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry.
Athletes are presently tested by the US Anti-Doping Agency for signs of homologous blood doping, in which blood is transferred from one donor to another, by evaluating proteins in blood. Rupert says the technology that makes DNA based tests possible is polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – the ability to amplify DNA to a high resolution, which cannot be done with proteins and this method, would be faster, easier and more cost-effective than current strategies.
White blood cells are inspected using polymerase chain reaction for different populations of genes and this test that looks at approximately 10 variants can demonstrate whether or not the subject has tampered with his or her blood by revealing genetic variance indicating the presence of cells of a second person. The technique would detect the doping even if an athlete were to remove as much as 99.9 per cent of the white blood cells from the blood that they transfuse into their body, according to Rupert. Rupert says athletes can indulge in blood doping by either opting for a transfusion of 500 milliliters of someone else’s blood (with the matching blood type) or by extracting blood from one's own arm and thereafter storing it and then re-injecting it back into the veins after the body has replaced the blood that had been withdrawn.
Rupert says the genetic variants we are testing for the purpose of blood doping detection have no clinical application but the DNA could be tested for anything. He added many people will have concerns over privacy rights if anti-doping authorities start collecting and storing DNA samples. He went on to add that the DNA-based method has the potential to act as a pre-screen test by allowing the more expensive protein test for being used to confirm positive findings. Rupert also said genetic technology could be used as a disincentive for blood doping and it’s not a substitute for the existing test, but in the future, it could be.
Until 1986, blood doping was legal and this practice was banned by the International Olympic Committee after U.S. Olympic cycling team, including four medalists, were found to have used blood transfusions to boost their performance. In the process of blood doping, the count of red blood cells in the body of a person is increased. Red blood cells carry oxygen in the body that is critical or improving aerobic capacity and performance in endurance sports such as cycling, cross-country skiing, marathon running, or soccer. Rupert says blood doping is a dangerous practice as it can lead to the possibility of transferring a blood borne disease, like HIV or hepatitis, or the extra red blood cells increasing the workload on the heart.