A UNIVERSITY professor believes he is on the brink of a major breakthrough which could expose thousands of athletes as cheats.

Professor Yannis Pitsiladis, who is one of the top experts in his field, said his new way of testing could herald the end of doping in sport.

Last week the University of Brighton scientist invited Olympic bosses to his Eastbourne laboratory to update them on his progress.

A recent study by Dutch scientists estimated that up to 39 per cent of professional sports people dope – despite just one per cent of tested athletes getting caught.

The news comes days after British doctor Mark Bonar was secretly filmed by The Sunday Times describing how he prescribed banned performance-enhancing drugs to 150 elite sportsmen.

While Prof Pitsiladis refused to be drawn on exact figures, he said that 39 per cent was a likely percentage in some sports.

He said: “It is clear that we are losing the battle here and that has been the case for many years.

“But I believe in my research and I believe in what I’m doing.

“People have called me naive but I see no reason why we can’t get rid of doping in sport.”

Sport has been hit by a number of high-profile cases in recent years with Lance Armstrong in cycling, Justin Gatling in athletics and Maria Sharapova in tennis.

But it is feared thousands more household names have got away with similar offences due to ineffective testing.

Prof Pitsiladis’s method of testing differs from what is used at the moment – and he is confident his test would have caught Armstrong, among others.

Instead of looking for traces of illegal drugs in urine and blood samples, he is studying RNA – or Ribonucleic acid – which together with DNA and proteins is essential for all forms of life.

He has discovered drugs can leave a tell-tale signature in RNA which is visible for many months and even years after the athlete has doped.

He said: “At present testers can detect a droplet in the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

“But the problem is most drugs leave the system in 48 hours.

“So although the tests are incredibly sophisticated, the drugs have already left the body so there is no trace. But I can detect the drug after it has left the system and that is how we will catch the cheats.

“There is no point looking for the drugs, we need to look at what is left behind.”

However, Prof Pitsiladis is yet to finish his research and is appealing for funding so he can complete the work.

He added: “There’s simply not enough funding for anti-doping and because there is no funding the top scientists are not attracted to it.

“At the moment in this country there is just me looking into this. That needs to change and there has to be support.

“But I’m confident with the funding we can eradicate doping and change sport for ever.”

MY CHILDREN WATCH SPORT AND I WANT IT TO BE FAIR

The Argus: Lance Armstrong, yellow jersey, had his Tour de France titles stripped after being found guilty of dopingLance Armstrong, yellow jersey, had his Tour de France titles stripped after being found guilty of dopingLance Armstrong, yellow jersey, had his Tour de France titles stripped after being found guilty of doping

BACK in 2006, professor Yannis Pitsiladis was studying some of the world’s greatest athletes to discover what it was that made them so special.

He travelled the world carrying out tests, collecting DNA samples and working in labs.

But during his research he was approached by journalists who told him his athletes were cheats – that they had doped.

He said: “It was really worrying, I didn’t know what to make of it so I flew straight to Monaco to meet with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

“I looked at my findings and was asked if they were doping or not. I couldn’t tell and I soon realised the tests and technology I was using to tell why people were so great were the same used to see if athletes are doping.”

The university’s professor of sport and exercise science, said: “I’ve got two children and I want to take them to watch sport and I want them to play.

“But I want sport to be fair. From the lowest to the highest level, the essence of sport should remain whereby the best athlete or the best team wins.

“There is no place for cheating, no place for doping.

“We all want to see incredible performances. We all want to see world records broken and I think that is possible through sports science. We have to give athletes another option to doping.”

For the last 10 years, Prof Pitsiladis has dedicated his life to catching dopers.

He has spent most of that time at the University of Glasgow where he has carried out various studies funded by organisations including the World-Anti Doping Agency (WADA).

But in 2013 he was tempted down to the University of Brighton’s Eastbourne campus with the promise of investment.  It is here he hopes to make the breakthrough which would change professional sport as we know it.

The last few decades, he explained, have seen dopers and the testers continually trying to outdo each other.

Almost like an arms race, as soon as the testers find a way to catch dopers, they find a more sophisticated way to evade detection.

But Prof Pitsiladis hopes his pioneering work will land the knockout blow for the testers once and for all.

His method of testing differs from those currently used as he is not searching for the drug in the athlete’s system.

The folly of the traditional system is highlighted in the case of American cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was only caught in 2012 after eight years of doping.

He and his teammates got away with what was described by WADA as “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme sport has ever seen” by exploiting a major weaknesses of the current system.

They took tiny amounts of drugs such as EPO and testosterone which would have left their system before they were tested.

Prof Pitsiladis reckons his test would have caught Armstrong and his team and spared the sport irreparable damage.  The science behind his test is complicated to say the least but at its core is genetics and in particular cellular anatomy.

He is studying RNA or Ribonucleic acid which attaches to DNA to produce proteins which the body needs to survive.

In theory if the body is fooled into making changes such as producing new blood cells, as prompted through doping, then an athlete’s RNA should reveal it.

This tell-tale signature, he believes, lasts for many months if not years after an athlete has doped.

In order to check his theory he carried has had to carry out doping in his lab.

He took blood from runners in Scotland and Kenya and then had them take EPO – Lance Armstrong’s drug of choice – before checking their blood several more times over a month.

He was looking for fluctuations in RNA sequences which indicate doped blood. And to his delight he found changes, some weeks after the EPO had been taken.

He said: “It is like a dimmer switch. When the EPO is taken the body reacts by turning up or down the RNA sequences.

“It was a very important finding and very exciting.”

While the signs are encouraging, there is still a lot of work to do before the test can be rolled out at the world’s biggest sporting events.

And given the poor anti-doping record in recent years, funding for such research is limited.

He said: “It is very frustrating because the technology is there, the science is there but the research needs to be done and that costs money.

“There is very little money around and there are fewer and fewer scientists carrying out the work because there is no money.

“I think outside companies such as from the biotech world can be part of this. They already have the technology and with their help we could solve the problem. It could be a very special project to be part of.”

He added: “The other thing I have stressed is the need for consortia. I don’t just want my lab to get funding, we all need to work together and share results.

“At the moment there are too few scientists working on separate projects.”

One of the other debates is what to do with the dopers once they have been caught.

Many say there should be a softly softly approach, arguing it is unfair to throw the book at young impressionable athletes who are under pressure to perform from superiors.

But Prof Pitsiladis disagrees.

He said: “If I go to work drunk or if I drink drive then I know the consequences. These athletes know the consequences of their actions and the punishment has to be at a level that it will act as a deterrent.

“Just think of the Olympics. It is only every four years. An athlete might only get to go to one games and they could lose out on a medal to someone who has doped.

“So I think the punishments have to be significant.

“If you also think that there is evidence that drugs can be long lasting then there is an argument that they should be banned for life.”

However, he also wants to show athletes there is another way.

He said: “I think education is a big part of the solution. We all want to see amazing performances and athletes want to break records and be the best.

“I think that is possible in a legal, safe way through sports science.

“And that is what we should be promoting.”

INQUIRY INTO DOCTOR IN DOPING ALLEGATIONS

AN INDEPENDENT inquiry is being launched into allegations a doctor prescribed performance-enhancing drugs to 150 elite athletes.

The inquiry is in response to a Sunday Times investigation which alleged Dr Mark Bonar claimed to have treated more than 150 sportsmen and women – including Premier League footballers, British Tour de France cyclists, tennis players and a British boxer – with banned substances including EPO, human growth hormones and steroids.

A Twitter account purporting to belong to Bonar on Sunday night described the allegations as “false and very misleading”.

The newspaper claimed UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) was given information about the doctor’s alleged doping activities two years ago but failed to take action to stop him.

Culture, Media and Sport Secretary John Whittingdale demanded an urgent investigation into UKAD’s response and met officials on Monday.

UKAD chief executive Nicole Sapstead said: “I welcome the investigation. We will be investigating fully the allegations but we’re now the subject of an independent review and it would be deeply inappropriate for me to say anything further at this time.”

Whittingdale has pledged to strengthen the law if investigations throw up any loopholes and former British Olympic Association chairman Lord Colin Moynihan called for doping to be criminalised.

He said: “The real deterrent that cheating athletes fear is the fear of going to prison - not the fear of being stood down from their sport for a year or two or four.

“We would see far fewer than the alleged 150 yesterday even trying doping in sport if they knew it was a criminal activity.”