The Drug Control Centre (DCC) is King’s flagship anti-doping laboratory with IEC/ISO 17025 accreditation. The laboratory sits within King’s Forensics, in the Department of Analytical, Environmental & Forensic Sciences (AEFS) and brings together experts of analytical chemistry and bioanalytical research into drug metabolism and the detection of substances used to enhance sporting performance. The DCC has operated under the philosophy of being the bridge that links new scientific research with the every-day, practical reality of administering tests and implementing anti-doping guidelines in UK sports.
The DCC was established in 1978 with the support of the Sports Council (now UK Anti-Doping, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport). King’s provided independent anti-doping facilities for the 2012 London Olympics & Paralympics under the leadership of Professor David Cowan OBE. Professor Kim Wolff has built on this success by overseeing the continuation of its World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) certification, remaining the only WADA-certified laboratory in the UK, and testing an average of 12,000 samples per year alongside its cutting-edge research.
DCC research has supported many breakthroughs in anabolic androgenic steroid testing, such as changes to ‘isotope-dilution liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry’ – an analytical approach that measures the ratio of stable isotopes within each element of the sample. DCC research has also made the process of purifying test samples much easier, providing better and more reliable results.
In addition to these projects, the DCC has recently pioneered the use of ‘volumetric adsorptive micro-sampling’, a novel sampling device that can quantitatively measure steroid concentrations using dried blood spots (DBS). Alongside research into the detection of anabolic steroids, scientists at King’s have improved the sensitivity of methods (mass spectrometry) used to detect human growth hormone and its analogues.
Another area of interest within the DCC has been tackling ‘designer steroids’ (synthetic androgens) that have proven problematic for conventional doping tests which cannot easily target these steroids, thus evading detection. Researchers have successfully developed tests which can indicate the use of designer steroids indirectly through the detection of long-term metabolites. This has been combined with DNA profiling technology to detect cases of individuals manipulating their own urine test samples.
These breakthroughs have collectively expanded our analytical capacity against the misuse of anabolic steroids. True to their foundational ethos, the DCC have translated these improvements into the doping regulatory field and ensured such analysis can be applied to national and international anti-doping policy. Within the last 10 years, the DCC has been working with the WADA and playing a key role within anti-doping practice.
The DCC have also built a strong partnership with UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) and based on their ability to apply research to anti-doping programmes, the UK Government provided £6 million funding in 2018 with the goal of increasing anti-doping testing in UK sports by 50%, as well as supporting education courses for athletes. With this funding, the DCC were able to double their testing output by 2019.
One of the most notable examples of the work of the DCC has been helping to uncover the Russian doping scandal where 111 Russian athletes were suspended, implicating Russian sporting and anti-doping institutions, including Russia’s own WADA-accredited laboratory. The detection of the manipulation of Russian athlete samples was managed by the DCC, which involved coordinating forensic work between a variety of international testing organisations and ensuring the science was legally reliable. Chemistry World highlighted King’s innovative new protocols in detecting sample manipulation from salt, as well as using DCC research on short tandem repeat DNA sequences to identify swapped urine samples.
The DCC continues to provide anti-doping testing programmes for key sporting events including the 2020 UEFA EUROS football tournament (held in 2021) and the London Marathon, as well as helping with the logistics for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games and the 2016 Rio Olympic Summer Games. As the DCC has developed a stellar international reputation in anti-doping testing, it’s clear that King’s Forensics will continue to have a significant impact globally in our fight against doping in sport.