Research paper raises questions about Salbutamol tests, may aid Froome’s defence

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Chris Froome’s battle to clear his name may potentially end up drawing on a newly-published study into Salbutamol, as published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. A research paper entitled the ‘futility of current urine salbutamol doping control,’ claimed that there are faults with the current WADA limits, suggesting that a single urine sample is unable to correctly determine a dosage level of the substance.

Under WADA rules, salbutamol use has a maximum dosage threshold of 1600 micrograms over 24 hours in divided doses, and 800 micrograms over 12 hours.

In anti-doping testing at last year’s Vuelta a Espana, Chris Froome provided a sample which led to a post-analysis level of salbutamol of 2,000ng/ml of urine. This was double the permitted limit for testing, and suggested that he likely exceeded WADA’s dosage limits.

If the new study is accurate, drawing conclusions about his dosage based on his urine levels could be inaccurate. His defence team is trying to prove that he didn’t break WADA rules about dosage. If they are unsuccessful in fighting the case, the Briton faces a possible lengthy ban.

The new study draws on previous research to build a stimulation model. It is based on an input of 800 micrograms, WADA’s 12 hour limit. Although studies into adult humans were used, the authors also drew on literature using dogs.

The authors – Jules A. A. C. Heuberger, Sven C. van Dijkman and Adam F. Cohen – reported that as many of 15.4 percent of the simulations led to salbutamol levels over WADA’s 1,000ng/ml limit. It claims that current testing can lead to both false positives and false negatives, suggesting that innocent athletes could be penalised while guilty ones could get off.

The report mentions Froome and while it doesn’t state if the authors have engaged in correspondence or other contact with the rider, Team Sky or his defence team, present an argument which would appear to benefit him.

“Speculation about a used dose of salbutamol from a urinary concentration (even when it
would be adjusted for osmolality) is open to serious criticism and cannot be used to affect the career of an athlete,” they say.

The authors don’t list sources of funding for the paper, but declare that there are no conflicts of interest.

Responding to the paper, sport scientist Ross Tucker has raised questions about the study. Tucker has previously publicly questioned Froome and Team Sky.

Two of the paper’s authors, Heuberger and Cohen, published a paper in 2017 claiming that EPO usage didn’t boost performance in amateur subjects doing sub-maximal tests and racing up Mont Ventoux. That paper was criticised by some, including Tucker.

Froome is currently competing in the Giro d’Italia and intends riding the Tour de France. Giro organisers have expressed dissatisfaction that his case has dragged on so long, but also claimed that UCI president David Lappartient has privately said that the result would stand even if he is sanctioned over the Vuelta Salbutamol case. The UCI moved to play this down, saying that the UCI president is not the person who would decide such matters.

There are suggestions that the Tour de France organisers may move to try to block Froome from the race if his case is not resolved beforehand. The UCI has said that it hopes that a final outcome is known before the start of the event.

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