The latest issue of the journal Nature has two articles (an editorial and a perspectives piece) on the topic of drug testing for athletes. Both the editors and Donald Berry (the author of the perspectives article) argue for the need for both more scientific testing to support standards for athletic drug screening and for more openness in the process.
From the editorial:
Nature believes that accepting ‘legal limits’ of specific metabolites without such rigorous verification goes against the foundational standards of modern science, and results in an arbitrary test for which the rate of false positives and false negatives can never be known. By leaving these rates unknown, and by not publishing and opening to broader scientific scrutiny the methods by which testing labs engage in study, it is Nature’s view that the anti-doping authorities have fostered a sporting culture of suspicion, secrecy and fear.
From Berry’s article:
Whether a substance can be measured directly or not, sports doping laboratories must prospectively define and publicize a standard testing procedure, including unambiguous criteria for concluding positivity, and they must validate that procedure in blinded experiments. Moreover, these experiments should address factors such as substance used (banned and not), dose of the substance, methods of delivery, timing of use relative to testing, and heterogeneity of metabolism among individuals.
In an ideal world, this is exactly the way things should work. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. There’s a very real problem that will arise if the exact methods and criteria are publicized. As the folks at Nature point out in their editorial, there is an intense ongoing arms race between the people who make the drugs and the people who design tests. If the exact testing criteria are publicized, the drug makers will know exactly what they need to do to beat the tests.
That’s a problem, and it’s not an insignificant one.
If you provide all the testing details, it will stimulate the development of new methods for evading the testing, and make it much more difficult for the testing to achieve its goal. If you don’t provide assurances that the testing methods are objective and reliable, it will continue to inject elements of distrust and paranoia into athletics. It’s a delicate problem.
The best approach might be a middle ground, where the procedures are subjected to comprehensive and repeated third party testing. The results of the tests would be publicized, but the procedures used would only be outlined in general terms. This will allow for comparisons between methods and an understanding of the true false positive and negative rates involved with each method, without publicizing enough of the details to aid the development of new methods of doping.
There’s some precedent for this within the scientific community. When I worked in a molecular ecology lab, we routinely made use of kits from various manufacturers. The kits were widely used within the community, and had been tested against other techniques. The precise makeup of the reagents and spin column filters wasn’t widely publicized, but that had minimal effect on the acceptance of their use within the scientific community. The need to preserve proprietary information was understood, and the results spoke for themselves.