UKAD’s Head of Science and Medicine, Nick Wojek discusses the importance of the Athlete Biological Passport in protecting clean sport.
There has been a lot of focus recently on the Athlete Biological Passport. What is it and why was it created?
The Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) is a tool that monitors selected biological variables in order to identify the effects of doping on the body, rather than directly detecting the presence of a prohibited substance.
The ABP is currently applied to look for the effects of steroids, erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs), and blood doping by monitoring variables in the endocrine and haematological systems of the body. Changes in an athlete’s variables over time can raise suspicion or provide evidence of doping if the changes cannot be explained by normal biological variation.
It was created because historically it has been very difficult to directly detect prohibited substances that are also naturally produced by the body, such as EPO and testosterone. This is because the synthetic substance administered normally has a similar structure to the one that is naturally produced by the body. There are also methods such as blood doping whereby athletes re-infuse their own blood (to enhance their oxygen carrying capacity) that currently can only be identified when looking for its effect on selected haematological variables through the ABP.
There have been claims that the ABP can be beaten and it is not an effective tool. Is that an accurate reflection? Can the athletes easily beat the system?
With any system, athletes who want to cheat will try to beat that system by adapting their behaviours. However, since the introduction of the ABP we have certainly seen a positive impact from both a detection and deterrence perspective.
WADA has confirmed that since 2008, 80 athletes worldwide have been sanctioned as a result of the ABP – that’s 80 fewer athletes getting away with cheating (source: WADA, June 2015).
The ABP data has also informed Anti-Doping Organisations of when to screen samples for erythropoiesis-stimulating agents leading to their detection and from a deterrence perspective, gone are the days of seeing the same extent of abnormal data that was seen before the introduction of the ABP.
Another important thing to remember about the ABP is that it is a long-term tool. It is a longitudinal profile of an athlete over their career – a unique fingerprint of sorts. If the ABP can’t prove that an athlete is doping at one point, there’s an opportunity to prove something isn’t right at a later stage.
The ABP is a complementary tool that enhances the traditional testing model. We use it to target test. We can use it to highlight suspicious samples to conduct additional analyses on. It allows us to target our testing and it has helped us to make our testing programmes more efficient. We are in a far better position with it than we were five years ago.
The ABP system will also evolve as new analytical techniques and markers become apparent through advances in science.
What is micro-dosing and how significant a challenge is it for anti-doping authorities?
Micro-dosing is about taking a small amount of a prohibited substance, little and often. By ingesting smaller amounts, the athlete seeks to circumvent detection by shortening the detection window of the substance being present in the body compared to when administering larger amounts.
The effects on performance are likely to be less than when taking larger doses but it enables an athlete to take it closer to their target competition.
Yes it is a challenge for anti-doping authorities, however the impact of the ABP is that athletes who are doping are resorting to taking less of a substance which in itself is a positive change.
There has also been a paradigm shift over the last few years to deal with sophisticated doping. Anti-Doping Organisations have adopted an investigative approach to tackling this whereby an athlete not caught through traditional testing methods may be caught through non-analytical routes – the role of intelligence and investigations to uncover the evidence of doping is now an integral part of the work of an Anti-Doping Organisation.
Why do you think athletes, coaches and fans should have confidence in the system?
We have, and are putting in place, a number of strong and robust systems which safeguard sport. In the last five years, anti-doping science has tightened the net making it more difficult to cheat.
The development of certain analytical techniques has meant that there are some substances, such as stimulants and anabolic agents, which athletes who do choose to dope just cannot take anymore otherwise they will get caught if tested.
One of our roles as the National Anti-Doping Organisation for the UK is to continue implementing new scientific techniques when they become available with the aim of increasing the risk of being caught and reducing the benefits of doping even further. We work in partnership on scientific matters with the Drug Control centre at King’s College London who are the only WADA accredited laboratory in the UK. This partnership looks to identify new threats and supports the development of new detection methods to improve the system further.
Another important thing to note is that we are now able to hold on to samples for up to 10 years, so they can be re-analysed at a later date. That in itself is a strong deterrent. We may not be able to prove today that someone is doping, but in a few years time when analytical methods become more sensitive or new methods are developed, we may be in a position to catch an athlete who is micro-dosing, or the athlete who is using a drug we can’t currently test for.
There will always be athletes who try to cheat the system and want to take shortcuts on the pathway to success, which is sadly human nature. However, by developing tools such as the ABP, retrospective testing and adopting an intelligence model, alongside testing at the right time, we can reduce the number of athletes who decide to take that path. If an athlete chooses to dope, we are in a better position now than ever before to catch them in the end.