Going upstream in the scientific process, literally.

My latest post for Wired Playbook reports on a new idea that two UK researchers have proposed for keeping tabs on which Olympic athletes are using performance-enhancing drugs.

Rather than having the athletes pee in a cup or get blood drawn just before competition, the researchers believe that searching for drug metabolites in the wastewater that flows from the Olympic village might be more effective, especially if used in conjunction with current screening methods.

As I wrote:

These studies indicate that fancy chemical analysis techniques can indeed detect drugs in wastewater, but claiming that some fraction of Olympic athletes uses PEDs, based on data showing traces of illegal substances in the sewer water? Well, that wouldn’t make Olympic officials blink. Unless researchers can hone in on who was using them, the idea simply won’t fly.

Katsoyiannis admits that while solid research supports their theoretical claim, the actual practice of monitoring wastewater in an Olympic Village to specifically target illicit drug use hasn’t been tested. But he plans to harness localization techniques developed during years of environmental research that could isolate the origin of certain organic pollutants that contaminate water supplies through rigorous sample collection and old-fashioned detective work.

I went "upstream" on this piece, and not just in the, er, wastewater vernacular sense. But upstream in that it's reporting science at the beginning of the process, when the idea was just that, an idea. No data had been collected. No analysis completed.

Most science coverage waits until the end of the study to simply relay results. But in an effort to try new formats and techniques, I decided to cover the very early stages of discovery.

A budding theme from the Science Online conference in North Carolina last month was how to improve science journalism. John Rennie challenged the crowd to fight the "paper-of-the-week" model that resounds through most media outlets, where the same big paper -- most often touted by press release (another problem I'd like to cover in more detail soon) -- is more or less covered in the same way by multiple sites, with only minor changes in words or tone differentiating one from the other.

This was my humble attempt to try something new, to challenge the status quo. On one hand, it could stimulate cool discussions about the growing possibilities of this research, or even spark conversations about its challenges. For instance, the privacy concerns of a system that constantly monitors people's pee for illicit drugs is, well, kind of sketchy. Even the researchers themselves joke that the system is like "Big Brother".

On the other hand, because there are no results presented here for this exact system, there's still a lot of speculation. But I still have to wonder, as long as it's sparked the conversation, does it really matter?

Photo courtesy London 2012

Katsoyiannis A, & Jones KC (2011). An anti-doping sampling strategy utilizing the sewerage systems of sport villages. Environmental science & technology, 45 (2), 362-3 PMID: 21142144

Schröder HF, Gebhardt W, & Thevis M (2010). Anabolic, doping, and lifestyle drugs, and selected metabolites in wastewater--detection, quantification, and behaviour monitored by high-resolution MS and MS(n) before and after sewage treatment. Analytical and bioanalytical chemistry, 398 (3), 1207-29 PMID: 20652555

Zuccato, E., Chiabrando, C., Castiglioni, S., Bagnati, R., & Fanelli, R. (2008). Estimating Community Drug Abuse by Wastewater Analysis Environmental Health Perspectives, 116 (8), 1027-1032 DOI: 10.1289/ehp.11022