UAE university develops new test for doping in camel racing

An innovative new test analyses the hair of racing camels for corticosteroids, also known as steroids, which can be used to enhance performance to gain a competitive edge over others.

Camels compete during the Liwa 2016 Moreeb Dune Festival on January 5, 2016, in the Liwa desert, west of Abu Dhabi. Karim Sahib / Agence France-Presse
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AL AIN // A new test for doping in camel racing that can detect foul play up to a year after it has happened has been pioneered at UAE University.

The project analyses the hair of the animal for corticosteroids, also known simply as steroids, which can be used to enhance performance to gain a competitive edge over others.

The recent UAEU study focused on corticosteroids through camel hair to better understand the drug’s health implications and to control in and out-of-competition doping.

Lead researcher Dr Iltaf Shah said: “The aim of this project was to develop and validate a new hair test from a variety of camel breeds in sports and racing applications.

“It is the first time that we are reporting this innovative hair test for corticosteroids analysis in camel hair. The new test will be useful in doping analysis, toxicological studies as well as in pharmaceutical analysis and other clinical applications in camel health and disease.

“These findings could also be of importance when evaluating injuries related to racing camels and disease control after hard exercise.”

The research team collected hair samples from 30 dromedary camels along with three racing camels in Al Ain and then prepared the hairs for analysis.

“The four drugs most commonly found in camel blood samples are cortisol, dexamethasone, flumethasone and methylprednisolone, all of which were chosen for this investigation and were quantified in the camel hair samples,” said Dr Shah.

Some research has been done to study the role of corticosteroids in doping but camel saliva, blood or urine samples are usually used as markers to determine the presence of the drugs when analysing injuries, disease and doping.

Dr Ahmad Murad, one of the team’s researchers, said that hair samples offer enough data so that infrequent, regular or isolated use of the drug can be identified, and that the samples will be used alongside the current blood and urine samples.

“This research is important because it proves that hair analysis has become one of the important tools in determining substance abuse,” he said.

Traces of drugs are trapped in the hair shaft and can reveal a camel’s exposure to illicit medicines for several months to a year after when it took place.

“The time limit for glucocorticoids in most biological specimens, blood and urine, is from a few hours to a few days, while hair provides a wider window of detection, varying from weeks to a year, depending on the actual length of the hair,” Dr Murad said.

Dr Mohammad Al Naqbi, also on the research team, said the test was more reliable and easier to perform than others.

“The hair sample is very stable, tamper-resistant and easy to ship,” he said. “By means of segmental analysis, it is possible to verify the chronic intake of glucocorticoids in camel hair and estimate the period of use, considering an average hair growth rate of about one centimetre per month.”

He said it could change the face of the sport, “providing a new tool for the authorities against doping”.

“This test will act as a deterrent to tackle glucocorticoids abuse in camel racing and those racing enthusiasts who want to use unfair means to win the camel races,” Dr Al Naqbi said. “This will be a big milestone in streamlining camel racing in the Arab world and across the globe.”

After the pilot study, the team is planning to carry out a large-scale cohort study in camels. A time frame for the test to be used in competition has still to be reached.