In a recent press release, the University of Waterloo revealed that it is well underway developing a new rapid on-site screening technology to test athletes for up to 100 different substances and performance-enhancing drugs.
Presently, the time required to test for performance-enhancing drugs–including THC, though not typically thought of as a performance-enhancing drug–is 30 minutes. The new technology Waterloo is developing, however, could cut that time down to 55-seconds, and in a few more years a mere 10-seconds. Additionally, the cost of drug testing would drop from “between $20 and $100 to just a few dollars per sample.”
At this speed, so long as an efficient system was implemented to keep the process running smoothly, WADA and other anti-doping agencies cold “screen every Olympic athlete every day,” according to Dr. Germán Augusto Gómez-Ríos, a postdoctoral fellow working with Waterloo’s Pawliszyn Research Group to ready the procedure for future wide-scale use. The process can screen effectively with a single drop of blood or only a few microliters of urine (one one-millionth of a liter).
The new method of rapid-testing is derived from a process called solid-phase microextraction (SPME) which uses a solid coating on a sample probe to carefully detect any of 100 substances in blood, saliva, urine, or plasma at the parts-per-billion level.
Such an immediate testing process would also necessarily mean sample preparation time would be slashed down to a single-step task and with future implementation of a “simplified mass spectrometer” that is only the size of a PC, allowing testing to take place anywhere.
This new method of drug testing would complement but not replace current drug screening methods. Though believed reliable, instead of immediately disqualifying athletes who test positive for any banned substances, anti-doping officials would flag those samples and set them aside for a “full confirmatory analysis” to determine culpability.
Technology of this magnitude would revolutionize sports and is also applicable in many other industries.
Per the press release:
“If you know you’re being continuously watched, you’re less likely to cheat in the first place,” says Gómez-Ríos, who cites the psychological advantage of having the chemical analysis take place in front of the athlete on a regular basis.
Perhaps it’s just the tone of the quote, but it is easy to imagine why the YouTube video promoting the new technology compares Olympic athletes to everyday motorists on the freeway. If the rapid-screening process works well for anti-doping officials administering the world’s top athletes at elite competitions, then it could also have the potential to aid law enforcement who have suspicion to believe a motorist, in this case, is driving under the influence of drugs, which are more difficult to test for than alcohol. What is not revealed, however, is how recently someone being tested could take a substance and still test “clean.” That is to say, in the case of a motorist, if they used some form of cannabinoid two days ago but are sober when pulled over, would they still be guilty in the eyes of the law as driving under the influence?
If, however, the rapid-screening process is also able to determine approximately when a substance was taken, then perhaps it will make it easier for law enforcement to determine which motorists pose a true threat to others at that time, and actually make it easier for pro-marijuana legislation to pass at the state level. This is merely conjecture, but nonetheless one interesting way in which the world of sport might shape law and lifestyle in society more generally.
The University of Waterloo hopes to see its technology utilized at the next Winter Olympic Games in 2022 in Beijing. WADA’s list of banned substances can be found here.