Professor David Cowan, Director of the Drug Control Centre at King’s College London, explains the process of sample analysis and the integral role it plays in protecting clean sport and deterring drug misuse.
1. The Drug Control Centre is a WADA-accredited Laboratory. What exactly does that mean?
If a laboratory is accredited it receives a certificate of quality from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and is then able to undertake sample analysis under the rules of the World Anti-Doping Code. This should give athletes confidence that their sample will be reliably analysed.
The lab at King’s College London is one of 32 around the globe and the only one of its kind in the UK.
2. So do you only analyse samples collected from British athletes? What if these athletes compete or train overseas?
We analyse samples collected from athletes of many nations, especially when they are competing or training in the UK. We also analyse both British and non-British samples that have been collected overseas.
The samples that we receive for analysis are individually coded in order protect the identity of each athlete and ensure that each sample is treated with no more grace or favour than another.
As a result, we are unaware of the athlete’s identity throughout the process. Once we report the presence of a prohibited substance to UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) they are able to connect the sample code with their records and decide what further action is required.
3. How is it decided which tests will be performed on a sample when it arrives at the lab?
There are two main criteria: firstly, whether the sample has come from either an in-competition test or an out-of-competition test and secondly, whether a testing authority, such as UKAD, has asked for specific tests to be undertaken.
For arguments sake, if a testing authority has intelligence concerning a particular sample then it is possible that they will ask for specific tests to be completed.
It is important to understand at this point that certain substances on the Prohibited List are banned at all times but others are only banned in-competition. Therefore an out-of-competition sample may not be subjected to the same tests as an in-competition sample.
4. We often hear about athletes having the option to have their ‘B sample’ analysed. What is the difference between an ‘A sample’ and a ‘B sample’?
When an athlete is tested they give a single sample of either blood or urine. This sample is then divided into two parts, an A sample, and a B sample, and securely sealed.
Generally, the B sample is only analysed if the A sample has been found to contain a prohibited substance. Athletes also have the opportunity to be present at the re-analysis of a B sample, which is not the case with the A.
5. It has been discussed in the media recently that samples from Major Games may be retrospectively tested. How long do laboratories such as yours store samples for?
Any sample is permitted to be stored for up to 10 years under the WADA code. We work with testing authorities, such as UKAD, to decide which samples should be stored for an extended period of time.
The ability to store samples for such long periods also allows us to develop new tests as technology develops and retrospectively analyse samples for substances where it was previously impossible to do so.
As discussed earlier, if the authority has information regarding a particular sample then it is possible that we will store it for any amount of time within that 10-year period.
6. But what if these samples are tampered with during their time at the lab? What steps do you take to ensure that individuals cannot interfere with them?
Security is incredibly important to us and it is highly unlikely that a sample would ever be tampered with. Our laboratory is in a secure area with only authorised individuals granted access to the samples. However, if anything were to happen to an A sample during its analysis we always have a securely sealed B sample in storage.
7. Is it possible to run out of a given sample if numerous tests are being performed on it?
In the case of urine, athletes are required to produce a minimum sample of 90 millilitres, which is sufficient for a full range of tests. UKAD Doping Control Personnel (DCP) are extremely efficient at ensuring that the correct volume of either blood or urine has been collected from the athlete in question. We take great care in using the minimum volume of sample for each necessary test.
8. It has been claimed recently that it is possible to beat processes such as the Athlete Biological Passport. Is it really that easy to beat the system?
Those determined to cheat will always attempt to find new ways to beat the system that is in place. However, to use the cliché, cheats keep cheating but then they get caught. It is not easy to beat our tests. I’m not saying that it is impossible, but it most definitely is not easy. As technology develops and new ways of analysis are realised, the ability to test samples retrospectively should act as a massive deterrent to those intent on cheating through the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
9. It seems that there will always be those who are determined to cheat. What steps can we take to stay one step ahead of them?
During the Olympics whilst working with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) we were able to link them with WADA to develop a scheme where we were advised on drugs in the pipeline which might be open to misuse in sport.
Other pharmaceutical companies have since entered into agreements with WADA so that today we are well advised, and can research into what athletes might misuse in the future.
So coupled with the 10 years in which we can retrospectively test, we have a large number of tools in our armoury to help us protect clean sport.