Until now there has been no test that could detect synacthen, which when injected simulates the body to produce extra amounts of its own corticosteroid. This is most common in sports where sports cheaters use these injections as a performance-enhancing tool. Synacthen and injecting performance enhancing corticosteroid hormones for other than medical treatment is banned.
Though some tests exist for detecting injected hormones, there has been no test that could detect it in a blood sample. But the scenario is changing now.
Research published this week in Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry describes a method that can detect synacthen, even though it will only be found in incredibly low concentrations in a person's blood sample.
Synacthen is a protein, and scientists have developed a method that can specifically search for the minute traces of synacthen in a blood sample. Called immunological purification, this technique can find any synacthen molecules even though its concentration is 10,000,000 less than other proteins in blood plasma.
There are severe penalties for any person caught taking banned drugs. It is therefore very important that any test is able to be certain about its statement that a particular molecule is present - in this case synacthen. To confirm that the immunological purification has pulled out synacthen, the protein is then subjected to a further two-stage test - chromatography separation and mass spectrometric analysis. This lets scientists produce a chemical fingerprint of the molecule - a fingerprint that uniquely identifies it.
"If the drug testing authorities adopt this new test it will close a gap in the current drug testing system, and mean that athletes will no longer be able to get away with this form of cheating," says lead author Mario Thevis, who works in the Center for Preventive Doping Research - Institute of Biochemistry, at the German Sport University Cologne in Germany.