July 18 - Amid yet more claims of illegal drug-taking by high-profile athletes, scientists in Switzerland say they may have found a foolproof way to prevent the use of banned substances in sports. They say their chip implant, designed to monitor naturally-occurring substances in the blood, could also be used as a weapon against drug cheats. Jim Drury reports.
The IronIC prototype chip, designed to personalise patients' blood monitoring - and one day help stamp out drug abuse in sport. Containing seven sensors, the chip is placed under the skin, and can be left for up to a year to monitor a patient's blood. In tests on mice, power was transmitted safely via a battery patch positioned over the skin, says researcher Jacobo Olivo, from Swiss technology institute EPFL. SOUNDBITE (English) JACOBO OLIVO, EPFL, PHD STUDENT, SAYING: "The patch is equipped with a Bluetooth model, so actually we can control the patch from far away using an Android application that we have designed running on smartphone or tablets." Each sensor's surface is coated with an enzyme to capture targeted substances. Co-creator Sandro Carrara says eventually doctors could analyse substances in the human body in real time and adjust treatments accordingly. Chemotherapy patients could be among the biggest beneficiaries. SOUNDBITE (English) SANDRO CARRARA, CO-CREATOR OF IRONIC, SAYING: "That should be useful in order to adjust the cure, the pharmacological cure to the patient. Typical example is chemotherapetic compounds, which are highly toxic, and then to have an online monitoring of the amount of the compounds into the blood." The chip detected several drugs and disease biomarkers in mice and Carrara says with further research it should be possible for the device to detect banned substances in professional athletes' blood. He says the Swiss Laboratory for Anti-Doping Analyses in Lausanne has already shown interest. SOUNDBITE (English) SANDRO CARRARA, CO-CREATOR OF IRONIC, SAYING: "I had a recent discussion with the federal office for anti-doping actions and they are developing this idea of the biological passport or any individual sportsman and they forecast that in ten years from now to have all the sportsmen to be obliged to have under the skin, in a kind of similar technology in order to have the possibility to follow in a continuous manner the metabolic baseline parameters of each sportsman." Sports authorities are fighting a constant battle against drug cheats, like Lance Armstrong who last year admitted to repeated drug infringments, having been stripped of his Tour de France titles. And news that Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson tested positive for a banned stimulant has brought the subject back in the public eye. The IronIc chip is a joint project with various Swiss partners and Carrara hopes that following human tests, the technology could be commercially available within four years.