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Biological passport to catch sports cheats |
ATHLETES be warned: the way illegal doping is detected is on the cusp of a radical change.

On 2 December, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released guidelines on the long-awaited "athlete biological passport", a way to spot cheats by monitoring them for suspicious changes in normal physiology. The method would be used in addition to testing for specific drugs.

  The passport, which consists of a regularly updated record of blood measurements for each athlete, was first suggested in 2002 and is already being piloted by several sports federations, including the International Cycling Union (UCI).

The release of the guidelines, which specify for the first time what measurements should be documented in the passport (see chart), may speed its uptake by many more. "These guidelines are to help sporting federations everywhere introduce biological passports," says Olaf Schumacher, a WADA adviser at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

Meanwhile, a similar method already used by the International Skating Union (ISU) has resulted in a guilty verdict, a first for this kind of monitoring. After some unusual blood-cell readings, German speed skater Claudia Pechstein has been banned from competing for two years. "It's a very important legal precedent," says Enrico Carpani, spokesman for the UCI in Aigle, Switzerland.

As with any new method, there is the possibility of mistakenly accusing athletes who have done nothing wrong - or missing those who have. The challenge for WADA is to show the passports limit the likelihood of this. "We must protect clean athletes, and make sure we don't incriminate them through false positives," says Schumacher.

The agency is hoping for widespread adoption of the passports on a trial basis because of their potential power. Crucially, biological passports have the ability to detect signs of doping without identifying specific substances, which can be elusive. They might also detect doping that doesn't involve illegal substances but produces measurable effects on the body, such as blood transfusions or gene doping. "Every reading is retained, so the passport never forgets," says Schumacher.

In Pechstein's case, this power appears to have been demonstrated. The ISU detected spikes in the proportion of Pechstein's blood cells that were reticulocytes, young red blood cells recently released from bone marrow. Normally, about 1 per cent are reticulocytes, but the proportion climbs to 3 per cent following doping with substances such as the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), and falls as low as 0.5 per cent if people have had transfusions.

The ISU accused her of illegally enriching her blood. Pechstein claimed the abnormal counts were because of a blood disease, and appealed the decision.

There are natural causes for altered reticulocyte count, such as anaemia, but last month the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the world authority for adjudication on doping cases, ruled in favour of the ISU. It rejected Pechstein's claim that she had a blood condition after a haematologist chosen by her was unable to find any signs of disease.

The UCI, which has been piloting biological passports for the past two years on 840 cyclists in Italy and Spain, expects verdicts on five whose passports seemed suspicious by February 2010. "We're very happy with the passport," says Carpani.

source: 11 December 2009 by Andy Coghlan

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