Five minutes with: Professor David Cowan OBE, co-founder and Director of the Drug Control Centre

The Drug Control Centre at King’s College London, the UK’s only World Anti-Doping Agency accredited laboratory, celebrates its 40th birthday today.

And Professor David Cowan OBE, co-founder and Director of the Drug Control Centre, departs today having been in post from the outset, handing over to Dr Alan Brailsford.

Professor Cowan has overseen numerous changes in the anti-doping landscape during his 40 years, including technological advances in testing and changes to substances and methods used in doping.

He tells us about his experiences at the lab, his greatest achievements and the direction he sees anti-doping moving in the coming years.

From a day-to-day perspective, can you please tell us about your role and how it’s changed over the years?

Originally we had to push everything forward from sample collection (we trained Doping Control Officers) to results management. I am pleased to say that now we work in partnership with UK Anti-Doping (UKAD), which deals with these aspects, enabling the Drug Control Centre to focus on our expertise, the science.

What is the most interesting/exciting part of your job on a day-to-day basis?

There’s a lot I enjoy but generally applying the science of pharmaceutical toxicology to help minimise drug misuse.

How did your career progress in order to become Director of the Drug Control Centre?

My qualifications in pharmacy turned out to be a valuable stepping stone, making me better able to deal with the entirety of drug misuse in sport issue.

Who have been some of the key figures you’ve worked with globally?

There are too many to say but Prince Alexandre de Merode (a Belgian prince who was the chairman of the IOC Medical Commission for many years) was an amazing man; Richard McLaren; Thomas Bach; Richard Budgett; Richard Pound; and colleagues from WADA accredited laboratories have all been great to work with over the years.

How do you feel anti-doping has moved on in your time at the lab, both in terms of technological advances and changes to doping substances and methods?

Technologically we have had the benefit of vast improvements in instrument sensitivity (at least 1,000-fold) but now have to deal with a much wider range of drugs than in the beginning. The advances in using biomarkers to provide evidence of the use of pseudo endogenous compounds, ranging from small molecules like testosterone to peptides and proteins such as growth hormone and insulin, has been the most challenging and exciting.

And where do you see it progressing over the next 5-10 years? What do you expect the next technological advancement to be, for example?

In my opinion, advances in the use of receptor-based assays to screen for prohibited substances is likely to provide the best way forward. Substances are prohibited according to their mode of action which relates to the receptors in the human body that they affect. A receptor-based assay can mimic the receptor in the body and show that an effect is likely and that a confirmatory procedure should be used to identify the substance that caused the effect.

What areas do you feel anti-doping needs to develop in order to catch the more advanced dopers?

More intelligence testing. UKAD already has a fairly well developed scheme to incorporate intelligence from various sources and the Drug Control Centre inputs into that scheme wherever possible. Further sophistication of that approach will improve the deterrent aspect of anti-doping.

What would you consider yours/the lab’s greatest achievement in your time there?

Catching cheats using human growth hormone, first in 2010 with the first type of assay and two para-Olympians in 2012 with the newer more sensitive assay.

What has been your most enjoyable moment or project at the lab?

Working at the London Olympic Games in 2012 with GlaxoSmithKline, managing a team of 400, was an incredible experience and one I’ll never forget.

Can you tell us an interesting fact about your role/time at the lab, that we may not know or that may surprise readers?

My most memorable moments were when I saw Torvill and Dean win gold (with all judges awarding maximum marks) in the Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo in 1984, my first Olympics ever and as a member of the London Olympic Games bid team when the Games were awarded to London.