Profesor Yannis Pitsiladis in the labs

World recognition for University research to beat the cheats

A gene test developed at the University of Brighton to catch doping cheats could be introduced at next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has announced.

Instead of looking for traces of illegal drugs in urine and blood samples, Professor Yannis Pitsiladis, the University’s Professor of Sport and Exercise Science, has researched RNA or Ribonucleic acid which together with DNA and proteins are essential for all forms of life.

And he has discovered drugs can leave a tell-tale signature in RNA.

The breakthrough test, he said, “can identify gene markers in blood if an athlete has taken banned substances – and the markers can still be identified many weeks after the drugs have been taken.

“The WADA labs can, with near perfect sensitivity, measure the presence of a drug while in the body. Our research focuses on the fingerprint banned substances leave behind allowing a greater window of opportunity to catch the cheaters long after the drug has left the system – this is the beauty of this approach.”

Professor Pitsiladis was delighted with Bach’s announcement: “I have been dreaming of this moment for so long and mostly believing this would not happen in my lifetime. The timing of this development has the potential to be the giant leap for clean sport we have all been dreaming of. Those who are doping or supporting cheating should take note and I suspect there will be plenty of disturbed sleep.”

Professor Pitsiladis was awarded more than £540,000 to research the new cutting-edge test with most of this funding coming from the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). It follows a visit to the university’s Anti-Doping Research laboratory at the university’s Eastbourne campus by a delegation led Professor Uğur Erdener, IOC Member and Chair of the IOC’s Medical and Scientific Commission. Also attending were Dr Richard Budgett OBE, Olympian and IOC’s Medical and Scientific Director, Dr Lars Engebretsen, the IOC’s Head of Medical Sciences, Dr Paul Dimeo, who researches drug use in sport and anti-doping policy, and anti-doping experts from around the world.

Inside the Games online magazine reported Bach’s statement at the opening session of the fifth World Conference on Doping in Sport organised by the WADA. Bach said the gene test could be accompanied by dried blood spot testing (DBS), another significant new weapon in the war against drugs cheats.

“With research on genetic sequencing progressing well, this new approach could be a ground-breaking method to detect blood doping, weeks or even months after it took place. If approved by WADA, such new gene testing could be used already at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

“We want the cheats to never feel safe, anytime or anywhere.”

Professor Pitsiladis, a member of the IOC’s Medical and Scientific Commission, has been working since 2006 on his gene test which has been hailed as the most significant advance in drug-testing since the athlete biological passport was formally introduced in 2002.

If the new test is not ready for Tokyo 2020, the IOC stores samples which can be analysed when the test is eventually validated.

Bach said: “This will add to the fact that the pre-Games testing programme for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be the most extensive programme ever, aimed to maximise both detection and deterrence.”

Professor Pitsiladis earlier told The Economist how sporting authorities need to provide more research funding – watch the video on YouTube.

Find out more about Professor Pitsiladis.