By: Natalie Voss
The fight against illegal drugs in horse racing may have gotten another boost on Monday, when the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council voted to approve funding for a new kind of drug test. The Council approved a proposal to spend a total of $195,474 over two years (if the first year’s research proves successful) to develop an biochemical test for the equine sex-hormone binding globulin. This blood protein attaches itself to androgen and estrogen to help them move through the body of horses, people, and other vertebrates. Investigators are hoping that an ELISA test could be developed that would alert laboratories when there is an unusual amount of the protein binding to androgens, signaling that the horse’s androgen levels have been artificially manipulated.
Steroids, like synthetic opioids, can be easily modified by manufacturers to have a slightly altered chemical structure that would allow them to escape detection — even by the most stringent drug testing program. Current testing techniques can find 38 different anabolic steroids for as long as 160 days after administration, but it’s hard to know what else is out there.
“Really, if you think about Barry Bonds and that whole deal that baseball went through, these designer drugs are not going to be picked up by the testing that we do now,” said Dr. Jerry Yon, chairman of the Council, before the proposal went to a votes. “You will not know that they are being used and there are a number of them out there in human sport. This would be a step to get us ahead of the curve.”
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has received intelligence that synthetic anabolic steroids are being used by some trainers, although regulators aren’t sure whether this is true, or how far-reaching the problem could be.
“I don’t know how much of it is perception, how much of it is sour grapes, and how much of it is reality,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky commission. “We’re not going in with a pre-determined agenda. We’re going in saying, ‘Is there a problem?’ and this test should help us answer that question.”
Although a finding of elevated levels of globulin would not by itself constitute a drug violation, it would give laboratories both a surveillance tool and a starting point to collaborate further with human practitioners to track down the variety of synthetic steroids used in a particular case. Once a steroid is identified by a process like this, the offender could be charged with its use.
The Research Advisory Working Group for the project is comprised of a combination of veterinarians and researchers at the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, and independent practitioners; it includes Drs. Nancy Cox, Michael Kilgore, Andy Roberts, Mary Scollay, Johnny Mac Smith, and Ed Squires.
Also on the agenda for Monday’s meeting was a unanimous vote for Dr. James MacLeod, professor of veterinary science at the Gluck Equine Research to submit a full proposal to continue research into articular cartilage stem cells. Stem cells have been in the news over the past few years as useful tools in regenerative therapy for soft tissue injuries, and MacLeod and his team hope to learn more about how and why stem cells turn into cartilage cells, and whether further understanding about this process could be used to help horses heal from cartilage damage.
The council also approved a request from MacLeod to pay for several freezers to store an increasing number of tissue samples MacLeod and fellow researchers are studying from deceased horses to learn more about bone density.