Chemistry with real life implications: now, that’s dope

If your idea of chemistry is scientists tinkering with beakers and their work never leaving the lab, you might need to adjust your thinking. Because chemistry can be life-changing.

For proof, look no further than recent crackdowns which have changed a multimillion dollar industry, and discoveries which open up new avenues for treating medical problems in babies before they’re even born.

This is the work of Associate Professor Malcolm McLeod from the ANU Research School of Chemistry, whose most recent research involved creating new chemical methods for detecting doping, leading to a clean-up in the greyhound industry of steroid abuse.

For years, dopers may have been avoiding prosecution because there was no way of proving that animals were being drugged.

The issue was that the drugs weren’t coming out of the animals looking like they went in, due to the body changing the compounds.

“When you give a steroid to a horse, dog or human, usually you don’t see that in the urine sample,” Associate Professor McLeod explains. You have to detect the downstream product of that, which is called a metabolite.”

Associate Professor McLeod and his team equipped the anti-doping community with the tools to take action, by figuring out how to synthesise chemical ‘reference materials’.

Reference materials are basically synthetic versions of what these metabolites would look like at the tail-end (pun intended) of subjects.

Associate Professor McLeod then went on to develop a new sulfatase enzyme; making drug-testing even more effective.

“The sulfatase enzyme is useful for preparing samples for analysis. A lot of the compounds that come out in urine are ‘decorated’ with various chemical groups which makes it easier for the metabolised drugs to dissolve and exit the body.”

The new enzyme effectively chops off some of the chemical groups to make a sample easier and simpler to analyse.

These sophisticated steroid-testing methods are being investigated even on the other side of the world, in relation to prenatal diagnoses at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, California and Institut Hospital del Mar d'Investigacions Mèdiques, Spain.

With their innovative testing tools, Associate Professor McLeod and his collaborators have been able to identify chemical compounds in maternal urine samples which may indicate a problem with steroid metabolism even in the womb.

“If a baby has problems with steroid metabolism there are really profound developmental effects.  An earlier diagnosis could theoretically lead to some sort of treatments even before birth.”

While these early findings are yet to be translated into diagnostic testing or treatment, it is hoped that medical science will soon convert them into life-changing therapy.