Laboratory Advances Improve Equine Doping Testing

Metabolomics and transcriptomics. Big words for finding really tiny quantities of really tiny substances in really big animals--and both enormously useful. The products of cutting-edge research, these high-tech techniques are on the verge of becoming the very latest in equine drug screening at high level events.

Using metabolomics and/or transcriptomics, laboratory analysts can get a sort of "history" of drugs that have been in a horse's body--even if they've been completely eliminated already, according to Yves Bonnaire, PhD, director of France's national horse racing industry laboratory (reference laboratory for the Fédération Equestre Internationale [FEI]). Bonnaire is also a member of the advisory council on prohibited substances for the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities and was a guest lecturer at the FEI NSAIDs congress in 2010.

Such "history" is not meant for heavy-duty policing of therapeutic drugs used during events; rather, it is aimed at detecting new doping agents that continue to cause effects on the horse even when none of the drug is left in the animal's body, Bonnaire said during a presentation at the 2012 French Equine Research Day in Paris.

In particular, growth hormones and erythropoietine (EPO) have become significant challenges for laboratories, he said, as current detection techniques cannot give a positive reading on these drugs with exceedingly short half-lives (meaning they are eliminated rapidly from the body) if none of the drug is left to be detected.

"For the antidoping monitoring of these kinds of drugs, the objective is no longer to detect the doping substance itself, but to detect its longer-lasting effects on the level of expression of the genes of leukocytes (blood cells)," he said.

With transcriptomics (also known as "expression profiling"), laboratory analysts are able to see how certain genes--in the case of antidoping, leukocyte genes--"transcribe," meaning how they transmit their information into something they produce, like proteins. Horses treated with substances like EPO will have genes that have a different kind of leukocyte gene transcription (which actually shows that the drug is working) than untreated horses. And in fact, when combined with predictive mathematical models via high-performance statistics software, laboratories can even detect illegal drug usage as late as several months after the drug was stopped, Bonnaire said.

Metabolomics is based on an analysis of metabolites produced during metabolism. Metabolomics reveal how a particular cell has lived and functioned and will reveal if that cell has been affected by an illegal drug, as well. Lab analysts can search for particular changes in specifically determined metabolites using high-resolution mass spectrometry.

These laboratory advances, in addition to the publication of acceptable thresholds for certain drugs, are major steps in keeping equine sports safe and fair for all participants, Bonnaire said.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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