Catching sports cheaters with a doping detector
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Athletes are competitive. They have to be. But sometimes, that will to win goes too far. They may cheat by taking drugs to improve their performance — an illegal tactic known as doping. Scientists have developed tests to stop them. But most only identify cheaters after a sporting event is over. Yagmur Akyaz, 18, and Semiha Doga Firat, 18, wanted a way to detect doping before a competition. Three weeks ago, they unveiled a small, inexpensive kit. They report that it can detect two doping drugs with the help of little more than a smartphone.
Both teens are seniors at Takev Science High School in Izmir, Turkey. The two also are passionate volleyball players. “We are both very interested in sports,” says Yagmur. But the teens had become frustrated with the degree of doping showing up at competitions.
“Doping in today’s world is a huge problem,” Yagmur notes. “Even the most famous athletes have been accused of doping.”
Most tests for performance-enhancing drugs analyze an athlete’s blood, saliva or urine. But the tests tend to be slow. Results often won't come back until well after an athlete has competed. If it turns up evidence of doping, athletes might lose any awards they won. The sport clubs these athletes belong to might be fined huge amounts of money. Countries with cheating athletes might even be barred from future events, such as the Olympics.
But catching cheaters at this later date may still have allowed an athlete to have received undue praise, depriving others of their chance to get their medal in the spotlight. “Our aim was to develop a test system to get results immediately and on site,” Yagmur notes.
The test that she and Semiha created takes about 10 minutes to run. That’s fast enough to test everyone on a team before a game starts. And when the teens compared their test to others on the market, it performed just as well. Their test also was less costly. Several dozen people could be screened for a total of $40 to $50, “which is way less than [tests] used today,” Yagmur says.
She and Semiha showcased their new test here, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). This yearly event brings together almost 1,800 students from 81 countries. The finalists share their science fair projects with the public and compete for about $5 million in prizes. The fair was created and is run by Society for Science & the Public, and is sponsored this year by Intel. (The Society also publishes Science News for Students and this blog.)
Designing a doping detector
The pair worked with Suma Timur. She is a biochemist — someone who uses chemistry to find out how cells function — at Ege University in Izmir. The teens decided to adapt a test known as an ELISA. It that can detect very small quantities of some target chemical in a liquid.
The test uses antibodies — tiny molecules designed to attach to a specific chemical, such as a doping drug. When combined with a liquid (such as saliva or urine), the antibody latches onto any of the target compound. To see whether it’s there, the teens add a second liquid. This one attaches to the antibody — “tags” it — to make it glow.
The result is a test that tints a clear liquid when a doping agent is present. Using a smartphone, someone can snap a picture of the colored liquid. They can then compare the color to other colored samples where the amount of drug was already known. The color tells the teens how much drug is in the saliva or urine — and in the athlete.
Yagmur and Semiha tested their technique on two drugs that football (soccer) players commonly use in Turkey: cocaine and methamphetamine (or meth). Both drugs are addictive. Scientists have shown each can also stimulate the nervous system, allowing athletes to briefly run faster and focus better.
If cocaine is present, the new test glows bright pink. Where the sample contains meth, the liquid turns blue.
Right now, the teens’ new test works only for these drugs. They do plan, however, to develop the ability to test for more. “We want to work with steroids and substances frequently used in America, India and Japan,” Yagmur says. The students also want to develop their own special phone app that will be specific to the test, instead of using a general photo app.
Most of all, the young women are determined to stop doping. Drug use doesn’t just alter someone’s performance, Yagmur says, it also can harm health. Athletes in Turkey, she explains, often don’t realize what the doping drugs’ impacts might be — such as their potential to cause serious health issues, even death.
On the social level, drug testing also is about fairness. If an athlete wins some competition, Yagmur says, “it should be because they’re working harder” — not because they’re doing drugs.
antibody Any of a large number of proteins that the body produces from B cells and releases into the blood supply as part of its immune response. The production of antibodies is triggered when the body encounters an antigen, some foreign material. Antibodies then lock onto antigens as a first step in disabling the germs or other foreign substances that were the source of those antigens.
app Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.
blog Short for web log, these internet posts can take the form of news reports, topical discussions, opinionated rants, diaries or photo galleries.
cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.
chemical A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.
chemistry The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Scientists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) Chemistry also is used as a term to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties. People who work in this field are known as chemists.
cocaine A drug that is powerfully addictive. As a neural stimulant, it makes people’s hearts beat faster and gives them more energy focus. People can smoke, snort or inject cocaine. It is derived from the leaves of a coca plant.
develop To emerge or come into being, either naturally or through human intervention, such as by manufacturing.
doping (in sports) The use of a banned medicinal substance or method to enhance athletic performance. (in electronics) The deliberate insertion of something into a crystalline or other semiconductor material. For instance, manufacturers may dope a material with electrons or electron holes.
ELISA (or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) This is a test used to detect very small amounts of chemicals in a liquid.
high school A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.
Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) Initially launched in 1950, this competition is one of three created (and still run) by the Society for Science & the Public. Each year now, approximately 1,800 high school students from more than 80 countries, regions, and territories are awarded the opportunity to showcase their independent research at Intel ISEF and compete for an average of almost $5 million in prizes.
methamphetamine A powerfully addictive drug. It is a neural stimulant, which means it makes people’s hearts beat faster and gives them more energy and focus. While most people use methamphetamine to get high, it also can be used to treat disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some athletes even use it to enhance their performance during sporting events.
molecule An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).
smartphone A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.
society An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.
Society for Science and the Public A nonprofit organization created in 1921 and based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, the Society has been promoting not only public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: the Regeneron Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). The Society also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).
steroid (in biology) A chemical that serves as a signaling molecule in living things. Steroids are usually hormones — which means they are released in the bloodstream to have effects throughout the body. They can serve as stress hormones or as hormones that make children develop sexually during puberty. (in sports) Some steroids help build muscle mass. Cheating athletes may use injections of steroid hormones to build extra muscle. This cheating is called doping.