A €1.6 million project centred in Northern Ireland is said to have the potential to revolutionise the battle against doping in equine sport.
Researchers intend to develop a new way to test for illegal drugs used in horses and cattle.
It will be the first animal doping test to work by detecting and monitoring the known biological effects of a banned substance, rather than the presence of the substance itself.
It also has the potential to revolutionise animal drug testing by enabling the screening of large numbers of animals more quickly and efficiently than is currently possible.
The work will be carried out by scientists at Queen’s University’s Institute for Global Food Security and the Irish Equine Centre, as well as partners across Europe.
The Irish Equine Centre, based at Johnstown in County Kildare, will lead the overall management of the project, which it says has the potential to revolutionise the battle against doping in equine sport.
Project co-ordinator Mark Sherry said: “Greater testing efficiency will lead to higher and faster detection and give the upper-hand in the battle between testers and dopers back to those upholding the law.
“The new test will allow testers to identify the presence of performance or presentation enhancing drugs as soon as their desired effect becomes apparent.”
The tests will target, among other things, banned growth promoters, hormones and antibiotics used on animals destined for the food chain and those involved in sport.
Dr Mark Mooney, from the Institute for Global Food Security, is leading Queen’s University’s involvement in the European-Union funded DeTECH21 project.
“Current testing methods focus on detecting the presence of illegal substances in animals,” he said.
“These tests are expensive, time-consuming and have failed to keep pace with black-market developments in producing, distributing and administering banned substances.
“The new test will help mitigate that risk.
“We are developing an entirely new approach based on monitoring the physiological effects of banned drugs, rather than directly detecting the presence of those drugs.
“By identifying the unique biochemical fingerprints that banned substances leave behind in an illicitly treated animal’s blood or urine, we will be able to quickly identify horses or cattle that have been treated with an illegal drug.
“This has the potential to enable more efficient screening of larger numbers of animals than is currently possible.
“Any animal in which the biological response of a banned substance is detected would then be singled out for further tests to identify exactly which illicit substances are present.”
The £33 million Institute for Global Food Security is a key player in improving global food safety, and in national and global efforts to provide the world’s population with a sustainable, safe and secure supply of high quality food.
The institute’s director, Professor Chris Elliott, is currently conducting the official independent review of Britain’s food supply network, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Health following the horse-meat scandal that swept Europe early in 2013.
Elliott said: “Despite being banned for over 20 years, the use of illegal growth promoters, hormones and antibiotics is believed to still occur across parts of Europe and further afield.
“The criminal gangs that operate the global trade in illegal animal drugs have developed the means of avoiding detection by conventional testing methods and new ways to detect this illicit trade are urgently required.”
Progress in developing the new test will be discussed at a major international conference to be hosted by the institute in April. The Food Integrity and Traceability Conference will attract leading scientists, food standards regulators and agri-food producers from around the world.
The two-year DeTECH21 project is funded by the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research, managed by the Research Executive Agency.