Industry News: Interview with Dr. Daniel Eichner of The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory

28 May 2012

This month we interview Dr. Daniel Eichner, Executive Director, at The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL), a WADA accredited lab in Utah, USA. Learn how anti-doping testing is conducted in the US and how current research and trends are shaping this invaluable work.

Dr. Eichner, could you describe the mission and role of your facility?

The Sports Medicine Research & Testing Laboratory (SMRTL) was organized to accommodate a growing demand for an additional high quality anti-doping laboratory in North America. Our mission is to satisfy this demand by being a world class laboratory that focuses on excellent scientific practice backed by innovative research and development. Critical to this mission is maintaining our ability to consistently report precise, accurate and defensible results. Through this, we preserve the high level of trust we have diligently worked so hard to build with our clients.

Could you outline the services offered and the analytical techniques used here?

SMRTL’s core operation is the analysis of athlete specimens in accordance with the current World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code. This is a very general characterization that simply means we routinely conduct several analyses for a broad range of chemically differing compounds. As expected, we analyze for a comprehensive list of anabolic agents, stimulants, and peptide hormones (such as human growth hormone.) We also analyze for substances that may not be readily recognized as performance enhancing by individuals less familiar with doping techniques. For example, when you think of beta-blockers you most likely think of heart medication. Although, an individual familiar with doping understands that beta-blockers are performance enhancing in sports such as archery because they decrease heart rate and calm nerves. We also test athlete specimens for anti-estrogens, which are commonly used as a key component of a steroid cycle. Other specialty services SMRTL provides include on-site athlete testing, athlete biological passport management, individualized endogenous steroid monitoring and expert consultation.

Is your team currently conducting research, and have any new techniques or protocols been introduced as a result of your research?

Because a small portion of athletes always look for unethical methods to gain an advantage, research is critical to our success and remains a central focus of our organization. Currently, SMRTL is working on several projects that focus on increasing detection windows for particular substances, incorporating new designer compounds into our analysis methods, and decreasing the cost of testing. We have a few major research projects currently funded. One project is geared toward the identification of human growth hormone (hGH) use through the analysis of biomarkers in blood spots. This project has much value for the anti-doping community. The current testing method for the detection of hGH use requires that a vial of blood is drawn from the athlete and shipped to the laboratory overnight in a controlled environment. Also, the current testing method provides a relatively limited detection window, and therefore, athletes must be tested frequently. All these factors result in extremely high hGH testing costs. If our research produces a biomarkers test for the detection of hGH use in dry blood spots, we will remove many hurdles of the current hGH test. First, the blood collection will only require a small drop of blood, which reduces the invasiveness of sample collection. Second, dry blood spots can be shipped in an envelope and don’t require temperature control, which greatly reduces the testing cost (currently, it can cost upwards of $800 just to get one blood sample to the laboratory.) Lastly, analyzing for biomarkers of hGH greatly increases the detection window and therefore, increases the value of the test.

Among other projects, we have also been funded to further refine our technique used in monitoring individual athletes’ steroid levels, which is a service already being employed some of our clients. We also have some projects looking at “designer” steroids. Some unethical scientists have developed steroids that are specifically designed not to be detected in a regular anti-doping screen, for example THG.

Of all the equipment and manufacturers available, how do you decide which technologies to employ?

Good question and there’s no perfect answer. What it comes down to is determining the analytical instrumentation that produces the most consistent and reliable results over an extended period of time. There are many instruments available that have spectacular analytical capability, but often times they are only capable of analyzing a few samples before requiring significant maintenance and adjustment. For us, it’s critical to invest in technologies that not only provide superior analytical capability, but also perform consistently over time. Another major consideration in technology investment is proven capability in research publications.

How has your own experience as a professional field hockey player influenced your work and perspective on anti-doping from an athlete’s point of view?

It’s a true accomplishment to be a high quality professional in any sport or industry. Field hockey is no exception. It takes hard work, time and dedication. Being an athlete I know the difference between a champion and the rest is inches, or even centimeters in some cases. Thus, any small advantage an athlete can gain is critical. I know for a fact that some athletes use unethical substances and methods to gain this small, but significant advantage, even when they know it will cause harm to their bodies. This behavior destroys the spirit of sport and is an insult to honest athletes around the world. Therefore, I am passionate about anti-doping and ensuring we do our best to preserve the spirit of sport by keeping it clean.

From an organizational perspective, playing team sports has shown me that a true team has exponential capability over the sum of its individuals. Teams succeed and fail as groups, not as individuals. Thus, individuals strive to perform at their best when part of a team, as they never want fail their teammates. In short, my leadership philosophy is very much geared toward building a strong team environment, in contrast to just managing a group of individuals.

Can you comment on any recent trends in drug-taking you have seen – perhaps any differences in USA versus other countries?

Doping in sport has become increasingly sophisticated over the years. Throughout my time in the industry I’m continually surprised at the new substances and methods that come to market, particularly in the United States. It’s not uncommon for a designer steroid or designer stimulant that is virtually untested to become very popular in a short amount of time. Large and highly networked commercial distribution chains that sell supplements in the U.S., combined with weak regulation of these products create an abundant supply. I assure you that it doesn’t take more than a few searches on the internet to come across a company that sells anabolic steroids. Most disturbing to me is the consumer has virtually no reliable information to verify the product contents and any adverse effects of these designer substances. People buying these products are acting as human guinea pigs and only time will expose the results.

What is your view on the adoption of the athlete biological passport (ABP)?

I am very supportive of the athlete biological passport. More broadly, I’m very supportive of testing methods that are individualized to athletes in contrast to relying exclusively on population information. At this time, SMRTL is one of a couple of WADA laboratories in the world that have working Athlete Passport Management Units (APMU). In addition to the APMU, we offer clients individualized endogenous steroid monitoring, which provides a focused approach to an overall anti-doping program. If we identify an abnormal change in an athletes’ endogenous steroid profile, we make testing recommendations based on the observation. It’s a bit more work on our end, but it creates a tremendous amount of value for our clients.

What do you see as the main challenges for the King’s College Anti-Doping Science Centre during the Olympics and Paralympics?

It’s great to see so many resources and so much effort being put toward anti-doping for the 2012 Games and athletes who cheat are taking a huge risk. Cooperation from many different organizations is why the Centre is going to be successful. In fact, a few of our scientists have accepted requests to conduct analysis at the Centre during the Olympics. We are pleased the anti-doping community seeks out our scientific capability and we’re happy to send our scientist to such a momentous event. It will be a great experience for everyone, apart from the athletes who attempt to dope. I really can’t think of a serious weakness in the program. The samples are even going to be stored for several years after the games and will be tested using new techniques as they are developed. Thus, any athlete that dopes during the London Olympics isn’t going to sleep easy for many years.

Finally, do you have any predictions for this summer’s games?

Under Professor Cowan’s leadership, it will be the most difficult games to date for an athlete to get away with doping.

Daniel Eichner, Ph.D., is Executive Director, Laboratory Director, and Chief Scientific Officer at The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL), Utah, USA.

Dr. Eichner moved to SMRTL from his position as Science Director at the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). At USADA, he provided scientific support for USADA’s programs in research, intelligence, sample collection planning, results management, arbitration and education. Prior to joining USADA, Dr. Eichner was the Chief Scientific Officer for the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA). During his time at ASADA, he was a member of the Anti-Doping Research Program, Anti-Doping Ethical Review Board and an expert witness for numerous Australian Customs investigations relating to steroid and performance-enhancing seizures.

Dr. Eichner was a member of the US National Field Hockey team from 1993-99, and played professionally in Germany and Australia. He received his B.S. from the Australian National University (ANU) with first class honors and later completed his Ph.D. in medical science from the ANU.

The Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL)

SMRTL is accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) to conduct intensive testing of athletes for performance enhancing substances. The laboratory currently provides these services to the major professional sports leagues, collegiate athletic programs and Olympic and International Federations.