Detection of anabolic steroid abuse using a yeast transactivation system

Oliver Zierau, Sylvi Lehmann, Günter Vollmer, Willhelm Schänzer, Patrick Diel
Steroids 2008, 73 (11): 1143-7
The classical analytical method for detection of anabolic steroid abuse is gas chromatography followed by mass spectrometry (GC/MS). However, even molecules with a chemical structure typical for this class of substances, are sometimes not identified in routine screening by GC/MS when their precise chemical structure is still unknown. A supplementary approach to identify anabolic steroid abuse could be a structure-independent identification of anabolic steroids based on their biological activity. To test the suitability of such a system, we have analyzed the yeast androgen receptor (AR) reporter gene system to identify anabolic steroids in human urine samples. Analysis of different anabolic steroids dissolved in buffer demonstrated that the yeast reporter gene system is able to detect a variety of different anabolic steroids and their metabolites with high specificity, including the so-called 'designer steroid' tetrahydrogestrinone. In contrast, other non-androgenic steroids, like glucocordicoids, progestins, mineralocordicoids and estrogens had a low potency to stimulate transactivation. To test whether the system would also allow the detection of androgens in urine, experiments with spiked urine samples were performed. The androgen reporter gene in yeast responds very sensitive to 5alpha-dihydrotestosterone (DHT), even at high urine concentrations. To examine whether the test system would also be able to detect anabolic steroids in the urine of anabolic steroid abusers, anonymous urine samples previously characterized by GCMS were analyzed with the reporter gene assay. Even when the concentration of the anabolic metabolites was comparatively low in some positive samples it was possible to identify the majority of positive samples by their biological activity. In conclusion, our results demonstrate that the yeast reporter gene system detects anabolic steroids and corresponding metabolites with high sensitivity even in urine of anabolic steroid abusing athletes. Therefore we believe that this system can be developed towards a powerful (pre) screening tool for the established doping tests. The system is easy to handle, robust, cost-efficient and needs no high-tech equipment. But most importantly, a biological test system does not require knowledge of the chemical structure of androgenic substances and therefore suitable to detect previously unidentified substances, especially those of the class of so-called designer steroids.

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