UT Arlington researchers have unveiled a powerful new tool for catching bad behavior in the sports world - a testing method for evidence of performance-enhancing drugs that can be up to 1,000 times more sensitive than many current tests.
Daniel W. Armstrong, who holds the UT Arlington Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry, and Hongyue Guo, a graduate student in Armstrong’s lab, presented the research March 18 at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Dallas.
“How much of a drug someone took or how long ago they took it are beyond the analyst’s control. The only thing you can control is how sensitive your method is,” Armstrong said. “Our goal is to develop ultra-sensitive methods that will extend the window of detection, and we may have developed one of the most sensitive methods in the world.”
According to the American Chemical Society, the new strategy is a simple variation on a common testing technique called mass spectrometry, which the International Olympic Committee, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and others routinely use to ensure athletes are “clean.”
Mass spectrometry separates compounds by mass, or weight, allowing scientists to determine the component parts of a mixture. In the case of performance enhancing drugs, technicians use the method to find the bits left over in blood, urine or other body fluids after the body breaks the substances down.
Because some of the pieces, or metabolites, are small and have a negative charge, they may not produce a signal strong enough for the instrument to detect, Armstrong explained - especially in the case of stimulants, which the body rapidly eliminates. Stimulants like amphetamine, or “speed,” increase alertness and reduce an athlete’s sense of fatigue.
The method Armstrong’s lab has pioneered is called paired ion electrospray ionization (PIESI, pronounced “PIE-zee”). It gathers several of those drug bits together, making them more obvious to the detector. The new method does