Q&A: How ASADA uses science to catch cheats
To celebrate National Science Week, we sat down with Dr Edwin Castillo, our Science and Results Coordinator. Edwin grew up in Nicaragua, where he completed a Bachelor Degree in Pharmacy and Chemistry and later moved to Australia where he completed a Master in Applied Science by Research at the University of Canberra and very recently his PhD in Organic Chemistry at the Australian National University. He talks about how ASADA uses science to catch cheats, the challenges facing anti-doping scientists, and the big questions that still need more research to answer.
Q: What drew you to study science?
A: When I finished school, I was like every other teenager. All of a sudden, I had to make a big decision about what career I wanted, and what I should study. Before I did, I met with people in all different jobs – lawyers, doctors, scientists, and teachers. But the job that attracted me most was Pharmacy. On the one hand, as a pharmacist, I had the opportunity to work in retail or hospital helping patients, but on the other hand, I was still able to work in industry or academia doing my own research. So I went to university, and studied to be a pharmacist, which meant understanding how drugs are developed and what effect they have on the body.
Q: Why did you want to work for ASADA?
A: The short answer is that I have always loved sport. I played a lot of baseball growing up in Nicaragua, and then took up Judo when I moved to Australia. It was through Judo that I became aware of the work that ASADA does, and I found it very admirable and something I wanted to be a part of.
Q: What sort of work do you do at ASADA? What is a typical day?
A: A typical day is spent analysing scientific data in relation to athletes’ blood profiles and steroid profiles. What that means is that I’m looking for suspicious patterns or abnormalities in the composition of an athlete’s blood or hormonal balance. For example, if certain hormones like testosterone or blood parameters like Haemoglobin, are very high, or very low, or have very distinctive fluctuations over time, it could be because of doping. So I keep an eye on that, for hundreds of athletes, and then work with our intelligence teams, our testing teams, and our investigators to build bigger pictures about athletes where I might have suspicions.
Another part of my work that is interesting is discussing scientific matters with laboratories around the world, and other national anti-doping agencies, to talk about suspicious trends of certain substances that are turning up more and more. This information can sometimes be used by laboratories to detect new substances, or even develop entirely new tests, so it can be very rewarding.
Q: How does science help you catch cheats?
A: There are so many different branches of science that we use in anti-doping.
The tests that are run by the laboratories use analytical chemistry and biochemistry. They use a lot of different analytical tools to detect banned substances in urine and blood. For example, they may use various types of chromatography, immunoassays or haematology analysers.
But to develop those tests in the first place you need to have expertise in areas such as chemistry and biochemistry. A strong background in other areas such as pharmacology is also important, as they enable understanding in how a drug affects the body (what benefits an athlete will have), but also the reverse - what effect does the body have on the drug until it clears the body.
This is very important for developing tests. For example, a lab test might not be able to detect a pure synthetic steroid in a sample, because the drug might be broken down in the body very quickly. Instead, a lab may look for the metabolites of that synthetic steroid. These metabolites, or markers are created when the body breaks down the drug, and could remain in the body much longer. If we can detect them, we can show that a synthetic steroid was in the body before.
Of course, you also need physiology and haematology as well, which help you understand the human body and in particular, blood. You need to be able to know what is ‘normal’ human functioning, and what is abnormal. Of course, elite athletes are typically stronger and fitter than the normal population, so you need to understand what is ‘normal’ for someone who might be training 50 hours a week.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing anti-doping scientists?
A: The biggest challenge is that science is also being used in the development of new Performance Enhancing Drugs. Unfortunately this area of science typically moves a lot of faster than the area of science focusing on the development of analytical tools to detect them.
One good analogy is comparing tests for doping substances to developing vaccines for disease. You need to have a disease first, before you can develop a vaccine. And then, by the time you have developed a vaccine, the disease has mutated, and so you start again. You can’t develop a vaccine for a disease that doesn’t exist yet.
Similarly, it is somewhat difficult to develop new methods to detect drugs that we don’t know anything about, or that don’t even exist yet.
In saying that, every year our ability to detect substances gets better and better and our machines can detect more and more minute amounts with high sensitivity. That is why we are able to catch so many athletes retrospectively, and it is why long term storage of samples is so important. Dopers are competing against not only the science of today, but the science of ten years away. That’s a long time to have the fear of being caught over your head.
Q: What have been the biggest scientific advancements in anti-doping?
A: In the history of anti-doping probably one of the biggest was the development of Gas Chromatography Combustion Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (GC-C-IRMS). This allows us to detect the misuse of anabolic steroids by differentiating between synthetic substances vs those naturally created by the body.
For example, everybody has naturally produced testosterone in their body, so detecting high levels of testosterone in itself can be ambiguous, because it could be naturally occurring. But GC-C-IRMS can tell us whether the testosterone was produced naturally, or if the athlete has used a synthetic version of Testosterone in the form of pills, injections or patches. So the development of GC-C-IRMS was a game changer.
Another big one more recently, has been the development of the athlete biological passport (ABP). This allows us monitor selected blood and steroid parameters over time, and can show us what an individual’s normal blood or steroid profile is. Any fluctuations in an athlete’s parameters, even if they are subtle, can help reveal effects of doping. For example, if data from a sample falls outside the athlete’s normal ranges, the suspicious result could be an indication of doping or a medical condition. Sometimes these fluctuations can be evidence enough of doping, but this information also allows us to develop targeted testing on athletes. I think the ABP has been a great deterrent tool and I believe it will become more and more useful as time goes on.
Q: What are the biggest scientific questions that still face anti-doping scientists?
A: One of the biggest is to do with genetics. Gene doping is an emerging threat – where athletes could alter their genetics to make themselves faster, or stronger, or fitter. There has been some fantastic research being done in Australia on this topic already. In 2007, the National Measurement Institute (NMI) started research to evaluate a novel approach for direct detection of gene doping, and in 2016 was the first to develop a direct testing for gene doping.