Validating steroid tests

nortestosterone structureGerman researchers have devised new ways to validate dope-testing of athletes, in suspicious cases.

Detlef Thieme, of the Institute of Doping Analysis and Sports Biochemistry, in Dresden, described analytical techniques that can not only validate current tests for narcotics and stimulants but might be used to study the long-term effects of steroid action on the body.

Routine steroid testing is based on an analysis of urine for steroid metabolites. But, a specific problem facing testers is how to differentiate between endogenous and exogenous anabolic steroids. These are often present in only trace amounts because of rapid metabolism.

Thieme and his team are now using Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry to make the distinction. He says that “The technical problem is more or less solved, but in practice there may be cases, where even exogenous sources may be legitimate, contraceptives for instance), or used as excuses in the case of contaminated meat”.

The researchers are also perfecting related techniques for analysing other biological samples such as blood and hair, which might help in detecting and understanding the action of steroids. For instance, while steroids are rapidly metabolised small quantities can be directly incorporated into the hair unchanged.

The method, based on high-resolution mass spectrometry is too cumbersome for routine testing. But, Thieme adds, that while there are limitations, well known from forensic chemistry, it is now possible to identify steroids of abuse, examine “dealers” for long-term use, and provide a rationale for the occasional fatalities among bodybuilders.