Was Lance Armstrong told how to beat the EPO urine test by the Swiss laboratory director?
Of all the stories to have come out of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) investigation this is the first involving what could be impropriety from a scientist. It was alleged this week that Lance Armstrong was ‘given the keys’ to the EPO test by the Swiss lab director Martial Saugy. According to Travis Tygart, the head of USADA, the lab director met with Lance and his long term team manager Johan Bruyneel at the Swiss lab. It is not unknown for an athlete to go to a lab to witness their B sample being tested, but I am not sure there are many other occasions when an athlete has been allowed to go to a laboratory to ask questions of the tests.
The emphasis of the conversation at the lab are a little disputed. Tygart suggests that the pair where ‘given the key’ to the test, by which he means they were told the details of the tests inner workings and therefore how they could either circumvent it or otherwise avoid detection. Saugy insists he simply met with them for around 20 minutes and explained the test to them.
In some ways it does not matter the exact contents of the conversation. Lance had tested in what they called a ‘suspicious’ zone, of between 70 and 80 % of exogenous isoforms of EPO (see here and here). The information they received would likely have told them why it was suspicious and then what would have turned it from suspicious to an adverse analytical finding. If they had had a good doctor (they did) who knew some of the drugs properties (he did), then it is entirely possible that from these simple bits of information he could have adjusted doses and methods of injection to beat the tests (as seems to be the case). The well known doping doctor that Lance was associated with, Dr Michele Ferrari, seems to have had a very good understanding of drug pharmacodynamics (the drug’s properties on a person) and their pharmacokinetics (what the body does to a drug). These allow you to estimate what benefits differing doses would give a rider and how long it would be detectable in a urine sample. The time of maximum likelihood of a positive test was known as the ‘glow time’ by these athletes.
I don’t want to blame the lab director for all of what happened next. What he did may have been with the best intentions to educate a cyclist in the way anti doping science worked. In this case if true he would appear to have been naive. The US Postal team subsequently altered their use of drugs so as to remain under the detection threshold for some time after.
Crossing this scenario to a crime lab, lets go for forensic toxicology, and a case of a criminal who wishes to drug a victim for nefarious purposes. Imagine this person going to the toxicology laboratory and asking which drugs were detectable and how long after their use they could be detected in various samples. You would hope that most labs would give very few details away of exact methodology.
In fact a very similar scenario did happen, in New Zealand. A medical doctor by the name Colin Bouwer telephoned both the Victoria Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) and The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) to ask about the detection of some hyperglycaemic drugs in post mortem samples. He was apparently given a ‘no comment, ask the Kiwi lab’ from VIFM and no response from ESR. I will leave you to do some research on what happened next in this case, if interested, or it may be a follow up in the future!
What was the big difference between the two cases? In one the testers used the knowledge to their advantage and tightened the tests whilst in the other it was the tested who gained.
Back to Lance Armstrong briefly, he is due to face a thorough grilling from Oprah Winfrey this week live on American TV. This will also be streamed live via the internet and for those interested in what he has to say it should be great viewing!
So, for Mrs Moriarty who asked on a previous blog ‘how did they get away with it for so long?’, here is part one of the response.
You need a ‘Golden Ticket’ from a lab director to let you know how it all works.
Does that make Martial Saugy ‘Willy Wonka’ to Lance’s ‘Mike Teavee’?
Thanks and don’t forget to subscribe for future updates.