A company that hopes for testing times

A Dunedin start-up company is pioneering a new test to detect performance enhancing drugs in athletes from the prick of a finger — with hopes it could make an appearance at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

If that is not enough, the test can also monitor harmful chemicals in waterways and identify the optimal time to neuter dogs.

The company behind the test, InsituGen, has received an additional $2million in funding from investors since November to continue to grow its applications.

With help from the University of Otago’s physiology department, the company has expanded from its sole lab to a new manufacturing area to get its testing kits, which are produced entirely in-house, on the market.

InsituGen founder and chief science officer professor Alison Heather said there were four types of steroid hormone receptors: progesterone, estrogen, cortisol and androgen — the latter being the one that some athletes abused.

They all activated the same signalling pathway, present in all animals and humans, which InsituGen had converted into a test that could measure the presence of any anabolic steroid.

InsituGen founder and chief science officer, and University of Otago professor of physiology...
InsituGen founder and chief science officer, and University of Otago professor of physiology Alison Heather is pioneering a new testing kit that can be used by anti-doping agencies. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Other companies were offering complicated cell-based approaches that needed to be done in a laboratory.

"Our one is very simple and any technician can do it on any lab bench," she said.

"You no longer need skilled personnel, expensive and specific equipment — it’s all very simple; basically, a pipette."

The test needed only a finger prick of blood, which was combined with a reaction mix and then incubated.

"Think of your Covid test — that’s how simple we’ve made it," she said.

Usually, anti-doping laboratories needed to search through a library of reference drugs, derived from the black market and online sales — which may exclude certain drugs.

However, the test they had developed would uncover any anabolic steroid, even ones drug agencies did not know about yet.

"For the first time probably in history, [anti-doping agencies] can be proactive rather than retrospective," Prof Heather said.

"Now they can screen athletes, find out that they’re taking something and then find out what it is.

The test was currently being administered to race horses "and racing camels", with the potential to expand to the human athletics market.

InsituGen was working with supplements companies to test for the presence of banned chemicals, and had been dealing with anti-doping laboratories directed by sporting agencies.

In a couple of months, due to the extra funding, they would be launching their product into the water testing market to detect chemicals which affected the estrogen and androgen levels — bodily markers of vitality and health.

The test was just as simple for this purpose, which Prof Heather said could be used to screen for waterways containing the chemicals.

After that, the next market on InsituGen’s list was the health and wellbeing realm.

Prof Heather said it was a common misconception the best time to neuter dogs was at six months — this had no scientific backing, and neutering your dog too early could cause bone issues, cancers and urinary incontinence.

Using the same base technology, InsituGen planned to offer a point-of-care test for vets to determine when a dog had fully matured.

Prof Heather had researched steroid hormone biology for the past 30 years, and got involved in anti-doping research "almost by fluke" in 2004.

Ten years later, she pitched the idea for a test that could measure the blood of an athlete before they got their medal.

Back then, Prof Heather said she was naive enough to think the test could make its way to the 2016 Olympics.

"Here we are in 2024 at Paris, and we’re still not quite there yet.

"But give us another four years and your might see us at the next Olympics doing some point-of-care testing."