6,250 samples, 400 square meters of lab, 150 anti-doping scientists, 24 hours a day/7 days a week, 1 military style operation led by 1 man and his specialist team: Professor David Cowan’s academic career has been building to this Olympic moment. We went behind the scenes at the London Olympics Anti-Doping Science Centre to bring you an exclusive look at the science, challenges and people behind this summer’s Games.
The Science Behind the Olympics: SelectScience Exclusive
The anti-doping laboratory, located at GSK Harlow, Essex, is the most high-tech in the history of the games. Professor David Cowan, Director of King’s College London’s Drug Control Centre, is independently leading the operation from the GSK base: “We have developed, with GSK support, super-fast and super-sensitive technologies to be able to detect use of prohibited substances. Our role is to ensure the efficient and effective operation of the lab to deliver robust anti-doping testing for the Games”.
Professor David Cowan co-founded the Drug Control Centre at King’s College London in 1978, and became its Director in 1990. He has published extensively in the field of pharmaceutical analysis especially as it relates to detecting drug administration in sport. He has held positions such as Visiting Laboratory Director and Co-Director of previous games, as well as being a member of the IOC Medical Commission, but this is his debut as Director for a major Olympics Games.
Chain of Custody
The forensic, or evidential, nature of this lab means a strict chain of custody is critical: Professor Cowan knows where each individual athlete’s sample is at any given time and who is handling it. From sample arrival to result, a new barcode system, a first for the Olympics and Paralympics, manages each athlete’s ‘A’ sample as it is processed, prepared, analyzed, and – if there is a positive – re-analyzed. If repeat analysis of the ‘A’ sample is positive for a prohibited substance, the ‘B’ sample is opened and analyzed, in the presence of the athlete if they wish.
If an athlete challenges a result from this lab, he will have a difficult time pointing a finger at the processes, or as Professor David Cowan advises: “the best way to beat the test is not to take drugs if you want to come to London”.
Effective separation and sensitive detection in a robust process is key – ‘planning for the last sample’ is Professor Cowan’s motto. The team will employ the latest analytical techniques: Ultra High Performance Liquid Chromatography (UHPLC) will ensure fast chromatography with excellent resolution, and triple quadrupole mass spectrometers will provide high-sensitivity with a speed of operation to match the UHPLC process.
Gas Chromatography and Isotope-Ratio Mass Spectrometry, as well as clinical chemistry techniques, will also be used to detect as many as 400 different substances across multiple pharmacological categories. Techniques are still being scrutinized, with the possibility of nanoLC being added to the process over the coming weeks.
With specialists still setting-up the instruments, fine-tuning methods and training staff, the energy in this lab is palpable. Challenges lie in the volume and speed at which samples must be analyzed for an absolute result, or as close to absolute as defined by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
The man-management and shift-pattern challenges are new for the King’s College team, something which GSK, the providers of this vast lab, feel it has been suited to advise on. GSK has provided over £20 Million on lab equipment, supplies, software, and other resources. Sir Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline said: “We have worked with King’s to put systems in place to enable this laboratory to test more samples than any previous Games and the same time developing a blueprint for doping operations at future Games.”
The King’s College team represents world-class expertise in anti-doping science. For recent PhD graduate and first-time Games analyst Ivana Gavrilovic there is a unique opportunity: “I’m very excited that experts from other anti-doping labs are coming to work with us. I hope that some of the skills and knowledge that I gained during my PhD will be applied at the Olympics. I’m very much looking forward to all of these things.”
SelectScience will be reporting on all aspect of the ‘Science Behind the Olympics’ over the coming months: Watch our ‘behind the scenes’ videos with the team at the London Anti-Doping Labs >>
Picture shows Arif Butt, SelectScience, David Cowan, Kings College, Kerry Parker, SelectScience.