A scientist at the University of Brighton has outlined how he believes the research he is undertaking will help snare drug cheats whose use of performance enhancing substances goes undetected by current anti-doping testing and says his methods would have caught Lance Armstrong.
Professor Yannis Pitsiladis, who is one of the top experts in his field, said his new way of testing could herald the end of doping in sport. Last week the University of Brighton scientist invited Olympic bosses to his Eastbourne laboratory to update them on his progress.
A recent study by Dutch scientists estimated that up to 39 per cent of professional sports people dope – despite just one per cent of tested athletes getting caught.
The news comes days after British doctor Mark Bonar was secretly filmed by The Sunday Times describing how he prescribed banned performance-enhancing drugs to 150 elite sportsmen.
While Prof Pitsiladis refused to be drawn on exact figures, he said that 39 per cent was a likely percentage in some sports. He said: “It is clear that we are losing the battle here and that has been the case for many years. But I believe in my research and I believe in what I’m doing.
“People have called me naive but I see no reason why we can’t get rid of doping in sport.”
Prof Pitsiladis’s method of testing differs from what is used at the moment – and he is confident his test would have caught Armstrong, among others.
Instead of looking for traces of illegal drugs in urine and blood samples, he is studying RNA – or Ribonucleic acid – which together with DNA and proteins is essential for all forms of life.
He has discovered drugs can leave a tell-tale signature in RNA which is visible for many months and even years after the athlete has doped.
He said: “At present testers can detect a droplet in the size of an Olympic swimming pool. But the problem is most drugs leave the system in 48 hours. So although the tests are incredibly sophisticated, the drugs have already left the body so there is no trace. But I can detect the drug after it has left the system and that is how we will catch the cheats. There is no point looking for the drugs, we need to look at what is left behind.”
However, Prof Pitsiladis is yet to finish his research and is appealing for funding so he can complete the work.
He added: “There’s simply not enough funding for anti-doping and because there is no funding the top scientists are not attracted to it. At the moment in this country there is just me looking into this. That needs to change and there has to be support. But I’m confident with the funding we can eradicate doping and change sport for ever.”
The last few decades, he explained, have seen dopers and the testers continually trying to outdo each other. Almost like an arms race, as soon as the testers find a way to catch dopers, they find a more sophisticated way to evade detection.
But Prof Pitsiladis hopes his pioneering work will land the knockout blow for the testers once and for all. His method of testing differs from those currently used as he is not searching for the drug in the athlete’s system. The folly of the traditional system is highlighted in the case of American cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was only caught in 2012 after eight years of doping.
He and his teammates got away with what was described by WADA as “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme sport has ever seen” by exploiting a major weaknesses of the current system.
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