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The University of Southampton
Medicine

Catching drug cheats in the 2012 Olympic Games

The development of a test to detect growth hormone (GH) misuse has long been a priority to combat cheating in professional sport. A University of Southampton led research team developed a new test, adopted at the 2012 Olympic Games, and identified two drugs cheats just weeks after launching. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has since announced its intention to roll out the test internationally

Research Challenge

 Detecting GH is a major scientific challenge because it is a naturally occurring protein whose concentration varies widely throughout the day and traditional anti-doping methods are ineffective. Although a GH test was introduced in 2004 it only detected GH up to 24 hours after administration meaning users could stop taking it on the eve of competition without fear of detection

Context

Developing a successful GH test has been a major goal for the International Olympic Committee, national anti-doping agencies and WADA for more than a decade to preserve integrity and restore public confidence in professional sport. Although a method principle was conceived by Professor Peter Sönksen and the GH-2000 team in the late 1990s, several issues remained and further validation was needed to identify GH dopers “beyond reasonable doubt”.

Our Solution

 The ‘GH-2004’ team based at Southampton was established in 2002 to develop and validated a methodology to detect GH misuse up to several weeks after administration by measuring two GH-sensitive serum markers.

Further studies addressed the test’s practical implementation which determined the optimal pre-analytical collection and storage conditions and the definitive decision limits for use by laboratories. Our team coordinated a successful test pilot and wrote the approved WADA technical manual ahead of the London 2012 Olympics.

The Impact

Our research resulted in the implementation of a more effective test to detect GH misuse and was backed by international anti-doping organisations. The test had immediate impact at the 2012 London Olympic Games where two athletes, who had failed the previous WADA test, were suspended after testing positive for GH misuse which they subsequently admitted.

Professor Sönksen, co-principal investigator of the GH-2004 team and Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, was awarded an OBE in January 2014 for services to anti-doping in bringing the test to fruition from its concept in 1996.

News of the new procedure generated a global media frenzy. As well as acting as a deterrent this demonstrated to sports fans everywhere that cheats are being punished. WADA’s goal is to roll out the test internationally in their laboratories worldwide.

The test is not just confined to athletics and has already been used outside the Olympics in other UK and international sports.

Catching drug cheats at the 2012 London Olympics
Detecting Growth Hormone misuse

Key Publications

List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Richard HoltProfessor in Diabetes and Endocrinology, Honorary Consultant Physician
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