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USADA’s sample retesting program explained

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As Frank Mir and Jessica Penne fall foul of USADA’s retesting program, Iain Kidd explains how the system works.

First, we were informed that USADA retested previously submitted samples from Frank Mir, subsequently finding further evidence of turinabol use. Then, just a few weeks later, we were alerted that USADA discovered a prohibited substance in a sample of Jessica Penne’s that had also been previously declared clean.

Retesting of old anti-doping samples has also been in the news outside of MMA over the last year; many Russian athletes who doped at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics were caught by the retesting of old samples, including over a dozen medalists.

The most sophisticated dopers have always looked to stay one step ahead of the testing regime. They create a substance that has no test, and as soon as a test becomes available, develop something new. The increased emphasis on retesting means even athletes who stay one step ahead are at risk of being caught when their old samples are tested using new methods.

I reached out to USADA Communications Manager Ryan Madden to find out exactly how the UFC’s retesting program is run. Here’s what they had to say (interview edited for clarity).

Under what circumstances will USADA go back and retest old samples?

In accordance with the policy (Section 6.5), samples may be stored and, at USADA’s discretion, may be subject to further analysis at any time for the obvious purpose of detecting prohibited substances or methods. It’s an important part of the program and plays a big role in deterring athletes from any potential use. It’s also worth remembering that there is a 10-year statute of limitations – after that we can no longer conduct any re-testing.

As already seen, one fairly common reason that we’ll go back and re-test a sample is when WADA-accredited laboratories implement new analyses or instrumentation that allows for longer detection windows or the detection of additional prohibited substances and/or their metabolites. We’ll also of course take into account any newly-acquired intelligence that leads us to believe re-testing is an appropriate course of action.

Based on biomarkers identified through Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) evaluation, USADA may also request that a sample be reanalyzed for additional substances, such as Erythropoiesis Stimulating Agents (ESAs), IRMS, and Growth Hormone Releasing Factors that aren’t included in standard urine screens.

It’s worth noting that our science team thoroughly evaluates every Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF), the possible source of it and any prior samples to better determine the ingestion timeframe of the prohibited substance. This benefits the athlete and USADA as we seek to establish the source, degree of fault and the potential of a sanction.

How many retests can we expect to see going forward?

We don’t have a specific number of retests, but we plan on doing as many as our resources allow. We remain flexible on this number because we like to see how the program unfolds throughout the year and if any other factors come into play, such as ABP data, information received through investigations, and improvements at WADA-accredited labs.

What kind of new testing protocols have been developed recently that may be used on old samples?

So the best known examples of new analyses are those that detect long-term stanozolol, oxandrolone and dehydrochlormethyltestosterone (DHCMT). Along with these, many new SARMS have been included in standard urine screens and the sensitivity for detection of these substances has improved significantly using LC-MS/MS.

How are new tests certified for use and implemented?

One great advantage of using WADA-accredited labs is that new compounds can be included in urine detection methodology fairly easily; it’s just a matter of making sure that a certified reference compound is available, so as to accurately confirm any positive test, and incorporating it into the standard laboratory operating procedures.

For completely new tests, like growth hormone biomarkers, it can take years for them to become WADA-approved because of the need for new instruments for analysis, validation, publications, decision-limits, etc.…essentially, it really depends on the specific compound, the matrix being tested and the analyses being used. The most important thing though is that every test used is fit-for-purpose, conducted in accordance with the WADA International Standard for Laboratories, and performed within the scope of the laboratory ISO 17025 certification because all this helps ensure the testing process is as effective as possible.

USADA’s ability to go back and retest old samples, especially coupled with the biological passport program, is going to make it harder for even the most sophisticated dopers to keep their PED use undetected. Prior to USADA’s entry into the sport, PED testing was considered an IQ test. Now, even athletes who are smart about what they take and when they take it stand a good chance of being caught.

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