Whether it is steroids, human growth hormones or other performance enhancing drugs, it may soon become much easier to catch athletes doping.

A team from the University of Waterloo has developed a new way to test blood and urine for drugs that reduces the time required to analyze samples from 30 minutes to 55 seconds, with the future goal of reducing it an additional 10 seconds by using a fully automated workflow.

“That's fast enough to screen every Olympic athlete every day,” Germán Augusto Gómez-Ríos, PhD., a postdoctoral fellow with Waterloo's Pawliszyn Research Group, said in a statement. “If you know you're being continuously watched, you're less likely to cheat in the first place.”

The researchers developed a more efficient process through the development of a rapid on-site screening technology— dubbed blade-spray mass spectrometry— that can detect more than 100 drugs using just one drop of blood or a few microliters of urine on a coated sample strip at the parts per billion level.

They used technology called solid-phase microextraction (SPME), which includes a solid coating on a sample probe to selectively extract chemical substances from blood, saliva, urine or even plasma.

The probe can be placed in front of the mass spectrometer for analysis after a simple washing step. 

The test can be used with recent advances in analytical instrumentation, which also includes Direct Analysis in Real Time and Open-Port Probe mass spectrometry, enabling drug testing everywhere from sports competitions and roadside checkpoints to emergency triage and workplaces.    

Large-scale drug screening for an event like the Olympics tend to be expensive, costing between $20 and $100 per sample. The researchers said the new drug tests could reduce the cost to just a few dollars per sample.

As a drug screening technique, coated blade spray-MS reduces sample preparation to a single step. Gómez-Ríos said in the near future, the test would be interfaced to a simplified mass spectrometer that has been shrunken to the size of a PC desktop and can be set up anywhere.

“The important thing here is to avoid false negatives,” Gómez-Ríos said. “One of those would be a disaster.”

Under the proposed screening regime, athletes who test positive for anything from a slight misstep to full-on cheating would be followed up with a full analysis by standard methods.

“The idea is not to do a full analysis with every sample, only the positive ones,” Nathaly Reyes-Garces, PhD., a postdoctoral fellow who helped develop the protocol, said in a statement. “Coated Blade Spray has demonstrated to provide reliable results for different compounds in the concentration range required by World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

“A sample that shows a positive result can then be subjected to full confirmatory analysis,” he added.