VANCOUVER -- Researchers at the University of British Columbia have developed a DNA test to catch athletes who use blood doping to enhance their performance, but its limitations mean the current testing system will continue to detect cheaters.
James Rupert, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology at the University of B.C., said the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency funded research for the DNA test, which was designed to be cheaper, easier and faster than the existing method.
The agency uses a test that examines athletes' blood for proteins to determine if they've received a transfusion of someone else's blood.
Rupert, whose study has been published in the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, said Friday the UBC test allows DNA to be amplified to a high resolution, which can't be done with proteins.
He said the technology enables white cells to be inspected for different populations of genes and reveal if a second person's cells are present. Red blood cells do not have DNA.
Elite cheats aim to boost their red blood cells, which carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, and help improve endurance.
Rupert said the initial quest was to develop a finger-prick test that could be used by volunteer doping-control officers at the Olympics, for example, but it did not work.
He said there are ethical concerns about collecting genetic data for doping control.
"There may be a bit of a block to collecting athletes' genetic data," he said.
The test may be limited because of the various tricks athletes use to bypass blood-doping detection, such as skimming off white blood cells before the blood is transfused from a donor.
"You'd take the blood out of somebody, you'd put it in a centrifuge and spin it and you extract the top layer of cells, which you can see. Then you'd just inject that into someone. It's not particularly challenging."
Rupert said the DNA test would not necessarily work on a small amount of diluted blood.
"The method we have is good enough if you actually had a mill of blood to detect (blood-doping), even if they took out 99.9 per cent of the white blood cells. But with the finger-prick there is just not enough material for it to work."
A test for transfusions involving donor blood has existed for nearly a decade; there's no test for when athletes re-infuse their own blood, which happens in the majority of doping incidents.
-- The Canadian Press