• Louisa Lobigs grinding her way over the cobbled climbs (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The fight against doping is an ongoing battle in cycling, but a new test is being developed to take away one of the excuses for athletes caught out by the Biological Passport. Louisa Lobigs, the 2016 Amy Gillet Foundation Scholarship recipient, is doing her Ph.D. on the new test, whilst juggling the work with her own cycling career.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

27 Dec 2016 - 2:12 PM 

As well as racing in seven countries this year as part of the High5 Australian National Development Team and with her domestic team Holden Cycling, Louisa Lobigs has also been poring over data, contacting industry professionals and compiling her report on the potential testing addition to the Biological Passport.  Lobigs, 26, studied Medical Science at the Australian National University before getting the opportunity to go to the Australian Institute of Sport as a non-athlete.

“I originally wanted to do medicine as a post-graduate,” said Lobigs. “So I sat the GAMSAT but I didn’t get into the universities that I wanted to. I went to the AIS and got a job in the biochemistry lab for a year whilst I decided what I wanted to do.”

“Part of that involved doing a research project and that was how I got involved with an anti-doping project in Doha (capital of Qatar). The project ended up being a bit too massive for an honours project so that is what has turned into my Ph.D.”

Working under Professor Yorck Olaf Schumacher at the Aspetar Hospital in Qatar, an expert in the biological passport and anti-doping, Lobigs was at the centre of a hub containing some of the intellectual elite of the sports science scene.

“You get to see some incredible stuff, there’s the Aspetar hospital in Doha and it’s pretty amazing. It is the only hospital in the world purely dedicated to sports medicine. They essentially pay for all these experts in sports medicine and science to come and work there, meaning that there’s a collection of expertise and some pretty cool brains to work with.

“It’s certainly very different. I came into a million dollar project, which is pretty much unheard of for a Ph.D. student. The project is partially funded by WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) and there was a lot of money but next to no athletes, so it was a bit of a Catch-22. It was always a struggle getting the high quality elite athletes to test.”

The 18 months Lobigs spent in Qatar was put to good use in other areas as well, she took up cycling and whilst she has been a relative latecomer to the sport, she has already gotten to the stage where she is racing internationally and is well respected amongst her peers. The sand and wind of the Qatari desert probably seems a long way away as she raced over the slick Belgian cobbles with her National Development teammates at Gent-Wevelgem earlier this year.

“There were a couple of guys there from the UK and Australia and they became my training buddies and I spent a lot of time holding onto them riding in the desert in the crosswinds. It was a mentally challenging place to live, it’s easy to get quite lonely there. From a cycling perspective, it wasn’t easy to go up the hills when I got back… after all that flat riding!”

Balancing the life of a researcher and an elite athlete isn’t something many in the peloton have to deal with. It is a more common theme on the women’s scene, where it is a lot harder to make a living off just being a cyclist and many have alternate careers. Most consider being an elite athlete or working on a Ph.D as full-time work, but Lobigs has been able to manage the pressures of both.

“I’m fortunate that what I do is self-driven, I don’t have to be in a workplace for certain hours and most of the contacts I make are via email or Skype. You have to be disciplined and motivated to do it and it helps that I have understanding supervisors who are very supportive of what I’m doing within cycling.”

The Science

The Biological Passport was formulated to catch dopers who by good management and luck had managed to avoid being caught. The problem with conventional urine testing was that the banned substance has to be discovered within their system at that time. Famously, Lance Armstrong claimed that he had never failed a drug test, but as we now know that was far from the truth of the matter.

The Biological Passport, also known as the Blood Passport, aims to give the anti-doping side additional weapons to combat those gaining an unfair advantage. Lobigs spelled out the basics of the current system.

“Every individual athlete has their own blood profile over their sporting career and the passport looks at their levels of haemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen in the blood), haematocrit (red blood cell volume as a percentage of blood) or reticulocytes (young red blood cells). Over time, you see patterns in an athlete’s profile. Each of the markers should be relatively stable, there are factors like illness, altitude training which can affect the values."

“If you are doping that will influence these blood parameters and that will flag you as a potential doping athlete. So then you look at other potential factors that may affect the testing, before deciding if they are a doping athlete, flag them for more testing, etc.”

The importance of the various markers is that increased levels of mature red blood cells increase the efficiency of an athlete’s oxygen usage, which results in better endurance, often the decisive factor in racing. The haematocrit of an athlete can be upped by use of illegal practices like taking Erythropoietin (EPO) or blood transfusions, or by natural means, like altitude training. Also dehydration can affect the tests and this is where Lobigs’ research comes in.

“The current testing is concentration-based, which means that hydration levels can affect the levels of the markers in the blood. So some athletes are claiming at the moment that they are severely dehydrated after a sporting event or in one case, after a big night of drinking, and that was what caused the abnormal result."

"At the moment there’s no way to tell if those claims are true or not.”

“The project I’ve been working on is looking at eliminating that excuse. We looked at common chemistry markers in the blood, for example cholesterol, total protein, calcium, things that come up in a normal health check and selected an optimal panel of eight markers. Combining the results of these chemical markers can be used to estimate an individual’s blood volumes or plasma volume at the times of the test… if you use a pretty complex statistical model that is!”

That is, anti-doping agencies will be able to determine the hydration level of an athlete and whether that has affected the readings from the testing. It also has other benefits to anti-doping as doping athletes have admitted to using tactics when taking EPO. After taking EPO in the evening they will try to avoid detection in a potential morning test by using plasma volume expanders or drinking a lot of water to avoid detection of EPO in the system. There is potential for broader use of the test as well, not just in the context of anti-doping. 

“In hospitals it can be really important as well,” said Lobigs. “If you have a critical care patient the water content can be critical information but there’s no way to know absolute levels currently, just relative changes. There’s a kidney dialysis expert in the States who is interested in doing some trials based on the models."

"There are some elements of the blood passport that you could apply to a hospital situation, looking at a different marker, say for instance cholesterol and establishing ranges for that. I think that’s also a reason that I really like this project, it has so many potential applications, not just in sport.”

So when are we likely to see a tangible benefit from this work? Lobigs will be presenting her results at the end of next year and meanwhile further testing will need to be done to confirm the efficacy of the testing procedure.

“We actually just completed a validation study at the AIS and the samples are being analysed as we speak. There’ll need to be a lot more studies before the test is added to the blood passport, but that is the ultimate aim. Basically it will make the passport more specific, it will eliminate one area where there was some variance and it makes it harder to argue against.”

“I’m really excited to see the results from the AIS validation tests, I think it’s a robust test but it would be great to see some more testing in elite athletes as well in the future.”

The larger issue of doping in sport and cycling in particular remains a hazy one, with a Cold War-like arms race behind closed doors likely to continue and improvements like the test being worked on by Lobigs just one step in staying ahead of the dopers. Being an athlete herself, Lobigs has a different perspective from her colleagues.

“I think cycling is one of the cleaner sports, simply because there is so much testing these days. The level of scandal and media attention really made authorities put money into it and get dedicated to stopping it. Sports like tennis, for instance, they play for 5 hours sometimes and would get a benefit from a substance like EPO, there’s not that same level of testing and with the money in it there would be plenty of incentive for cheating.”

“It’s not just about keeping the sport clean though, it’s about protecting athlete’s health, this stuff can kill you. It’s not just about a level playing field, it’s about making sure athletes have a life after sport as well.”