Original: August 2018
Updated: October 2020
Blood samples are a critical component of anti-doping programs because they allow laboratories to detect prohibited substances and methods that are not detectable in urine samples. However, athletes who have experienced traditional blood collection know that taking blood samples from a vein in the arm (also called venipuncture) can be time consuming and uncomfortable. This process also requires a skilled blood collection officer with phlebotomy training and the expense of rapid, cold-chain shipping to the laboratory.
Until now, venipuncture has long been the only reliable and feasible blood draw method available, but thanks to new medical device technology, that is changing. As the healthcare industry introduces technologies that allow for quick, painless, and at-home blood draws, USADA and anti-doping experts around the world have also been conducting research that would combine these athlete-friendly and cost-effective collection technologies with a reliable sample analysis matrix to better fight doping and improve the athlete experience.
Together, these methods comprise Dried Blood Spot (DBS) testing, which USADA has been piloting for a number of years to advance the most effective and reliable blood collection process and equipment for both athletes and clean sport. More athletes should expect to experience DBS collections in the coming months and years.
Below is more information about this innovative collection and analysis method:
1. What is DBS?
With DBS, a very small amount of blood can be captured from capillary blood vessels in the skin (rather than a vein), then blotted and dried on paper or other suitable absorbent material (like a polymer). The sample is shipped to a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-accredited laboratory, where the blood is processed and analyzed to detect prohibited substances or methods.
2. How can DBS testing advance anti-doping?
While urine testing remains the gold standard in anti-doping because of laboratory detection ability, DBS provides a complementary testing method to those already in use, including urine and whole blood (collected intravenously). Published research has demonstrated that DBS analysis can detect a wide range of substances and biomarkers, while also enabling easier transport, longer storage of blood samples, and greater opportunities for reanalysis.
Additionally, DBS testing could allow USADA to collect more blood samples from athletes, at less cost, and with greater comfort for the athlete. USADA has also recently successfully piloted DBS for virtual (remote) sample collections via video conferencing platforms.
3. Is capillary blood different from venous blood?
The traditional blood sampling technique, venipuncture, uses blood from a vein, while DBS uses blood from capillaries under the surface of the skin. The composition of the blood is similar, but the way it’s extracted is very different. Collecting venous blood requires a licensed phlebotomist to conduct the procedure, which can be time consuming, while capillary blood can be collected painlessly and without the assistance of a blood collection professional. Capillary collections also require far less blood, about 25 times less, at just 0.08 milliliters compared to venipuncture draws that require 2-5 milliliters. Additional advancements may allow even greater DBS volumes, enabling the labs to conduct more analysis while still minimizing the amount required from athletes.
4. What kinds of collection devices enable DBS collections?
Capillary blood collection devices can draw blood from various surfaces of the body, including a finger, heel, or arm. USADA currently uses FDA-registered devices that collect blood from the arm with very little or no pain. Being registered by the FDA and other regulatory bodies for human use means that the safety and efficacy of these medical devices are closely regulated and monitored. Follow the links for more information about the collection devices USADA is currently exploring:
5. How does sample collection generally work?
A DBS collection device is pressed onto the arm and secures to the skin with a light adhesive or suction. At the press of a button, a vacuum forms and a micro-lancet(s) pricks the surface of the skin. The vacuum draws blood out of the capillaries through the microfluidics of the device and is deposited into a sample pod or reservoir attached to the device. In general, the collection takes about 1-5 minutes. The sample is then sealed with a desiccant to assist with drying and stabilization and shipped to the laboratory in an envelope via courier or mail – no refrigeration needed.
6. Are there any side effects?
As with all blood testing, there is a small chance of adverse side effects. For example, an athlete may feel nauseous at the sight of blood, or there is a small chance of infection. However, compared to venipuncture, the risks are minimal. In fact, athletes and sample collection personnel both report that the blood draw experience is vastly improved with DBS collections.
7. Has research been conducted about the application of DBS testing for doping detection?
Dozens of research publications highlight the use of DBS to detect a diverse spectrum of substances prohibited in sport, including anabolic agents, peptide hormones, beta-2 agonists, hormone and metabolic modulators, diuretics and masking agents, stimulants, narcotics, cannabinoids, glucocorticoids, and beta-blockers. As more research is conducted, the number of substances and methods that can be detected with DBS will continue to grow.
8. What are some of the limitations of DBS?
The main limitation to DBS is the relatively small volume of blood, making it necessary to analyze each sample for a finite list of substances. As the blood draw capacity of DBS collection devices improves, it is anticipated that labs will be able to analyze each sample for a larger list of prohibited substances.
9. Will DBS testing become a routine collection and analysis method?
USADA has been piloting DBS testing in the UFC Anti-Doping Program since 2018, and in collaboration with WADA and other anti-doping partners, is working towards making it an official complementary blood collection solution. USADA plans to continue collecting DBS samples to support its testing, investigations, and scientific efforts, as well as gather additional data and experience to help implement DBS collections into routine testing in the U.S. and globally.