New detection system in place for performance enhancing drugsA new detection system that can be used for testing athletes for performance enhancing drugs is presently being developed by scientists at the University of Nottingham.

The research, being led by Professor Colin Snape in the University’s School of Chemical, Environmental and Mining Engineering and published recently in Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, is expected to offer a more reliable way to detect drug molecules in the body.


In collaboration with Dr Mark Sephton at the Open University, Professor Snape’s research group has developed a technique called hydropyrolysis, commonly used to aid oil exploration by liberating small fragments of organic matter from petroleum rock sources. The modified process can recognise the origin of any carbon-based molecules, including fatty acids and steroids, in the body.

The type of carbon in the body’s molecules reflects the carbon ingested as part of an athlete’s diet. Drugs manufactured in the lab contain very different carbon, allowing the two types of molecules to be distinguished by scientific instruments.

However, previous techniques have been unable to offer a precise detection method. Professor Snape explained: “In effect, you are what you eat plus a little bit of what you might inject. In their natural form, however, the body’s molecules are too ‘sticky’ for accurate measurements by our laboratory equipment.”

Some methods overcome these problems but add carbon to the target molecule, irreversibly overprinting the carbon source ‘signal’. The research into hydropyrolysis, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, has developed a new approach that delicately strips molecules of their ‘sticky’ parts but retains the carbon skeleton intact, allowing easy detection of the carbon source.

It was added by Professor Snape that the discovery of this method for producing easy-to-handle molecules without destruction of their carbon source signals opening up of the complete molecules in the body to intense scientific scrutiny.