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

Headline-grabbing crack-downs on drug abuse in sports industries, discovering new chemical compounds, developing malaria medications and potential medical methods for prenatal diagnoses.

This is the life of ANU Associate Professor Malcolm McLeod, whose most recent work 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 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.

And it all started as a hobby.

“We were involved with the Australian Racing Forensic Laboratory in Sydney that worked in horse and greyhound testing. We had a couple of little projects with them where we were helping to make a few things, but didn’t treat it very seriously.”

It wasn’t until he moved to ANU, Associate Professor McLeod explains, that he decided to focus on improved drug-testing methods.

This passion for work he describes as “rewarding and actually quite fun”, took him to a distinguished laboratory at the Institut Hospital del Mar d'Investigacions Mèdiques, Spain, where he uncovered a new family of metabolites called steroidal bis(sulfates).

Previously off the radar for many industry leaders, Associate Professor McLeod not only proved their existence but also created a new methods to make and analyse these compounds.

These sophisticated new steroid-testing methods and tools are even being investigated on the other side of the world, in relation to prenatal diagnoses in the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, California.

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 before a baby is born.

“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, Associate Professor McLeod is hopeful that the field of medical science will consider adopting some of their ground-breaking methodology.

One thing is for certain, though: following the example of Associate Professor McLeod, chemistry is a career that can change lives.

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