New thesis introduces high tech tools to expose doping


In her thesis, Malin Nilsson Broberg launches new methods to trace use of illegal doping substances. "Our group has already helped to expose two cheating Olympic medalists, so these are without a doubt tools that can contribute to cleaner sports," says Malin on site in Uppsala University's laboratory for Analytical Pharmaceutical Chemistry.

Malin Nilsson Broberg

What tools are you introducing?
“The body excretes many of the prohibited substances long before any controls are possible. On the other hand, they leave behind a number of breakdown products, so-called metabolites, that often remain in the body considerably longer. If we extend controls to search for these substances as well, we will prolong the detection windows, and in my thesis I present both new targets and methods that improve our possibilities to detect them.”

How do these methods work in practice?
“To accelerate the excretion of doping elements, our body converts them into various water-soluble substances. We have used liquid chromatography to separate these in samples from horses and humans who have received small doses of muscle-building substances, before analyzing them down to their smallest components in high-resolution mass spectrometry. Along the way, we have identified metabolites formed in the body, as well as a method to increase the concentration of these substances in the laboratory by up to thirty times, thus, making it easier to trace them.”

Mission accomplished. Nailing in progress.
Mission accomplished. Nailing in progress.

What significance can your results have in achieving cleaner sports?“In 2012, researchers in our group succeeded in producing previously unknown metabolites of the anabolic steroid oxandrolone, enabling the World Anti-Doping Agency to analyze a number of frozen samples from the Olympics in Athens eight years earlier. At the time of the Games, the metabolite was not yet known, but with the new method, WADA was able to expose two medalists as cheaters and subsequently disqualify them, so this is definitely a technology that opens new doors and makes a difference.”

Will it even place the laboratories one step ahead of the cheaters?
“I would rather say it is a valuable complement to already available tools. The more analytical approaches we develop, the greater the chance for laboratories to succeed. To keep up with the cheaters, we must work along several parallel tracks. Among many things, we need to stay up-to-date regarding the preparations provided online, but by applying the tools we are now introducing, we can in real time create the reference substances required to trace them.”

Design by Nilsson Broberg
Design by Nilsson Broberg

Are your results ready to use or awaiting further development?
“They are ready and available for anti-doping laboratories to start using. The Swedish Veterinary Agency – where I will take up a research position after my dissertation – will for example implement the metabolites that I have identified. In parallel, there is potential to further sharpen the technology, but before new steps can be taken, certain preparations are required.”

Finally, what are your thoughts on the debate to legalize doping?
”I can to some extent understand a few of the arguments to legalize doping among humans, but personally I am convinced that health aspects and the unreasonableness of leaving such decisions to the individual make it impossible to implement. If we turn to animals – where competitions with horses, dogs, pigeons and camels are arranged – the ethical aspects are far more than sufficient to justify a continued ban.”


  • Malin Nilsson Broberg defends her thesis at BMC room B42, Husargatan 3, Friday March 22, at 09.15.
  • The research team in Analytical Pharmaceutical Chemistry mainly covers bioanalysis – determination of drugs and metabolites in biological systems – with a particular focus on separation methods linked to mass spectrometry.



​ Malin Nilsson Broberg, doktorandMalin Nilsson Broberg, PhD Student
Department of Medicinal Chemistry

Text: Magnus Alsne, photo: Mikael Wallerstedt, Magnus Alsne a o

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Last modified: 2024-04-04