Noble gases: neon lights, anaesthetics... and doping agents?

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  • Published: May 1, 2016
  • Author: Ryan De Vooght-Johnson
  • Channels: Gas Chromatography
thumbnail image: Noble gases: neon lights, anaesthetics... and doping agents?

The mystery of anaesthesia

The most common anaesthetics are noble gases. Although we know they are very soluble in fat (which is thought to affect the function of some proteins in nerve cells, which are surrounded by lipids) – the exact mechanism is still a mystery. Of all the noble gases, xenon is the most potent anaesthetic.

No-one really knows how anaesthetics work. That may sound implausible, but it’s true. This cornerstone of modern medicine has transformed surgery from the stuff of nightmares to an everyday experience, yet our understanding of how anaesthetics put us to sleep is severely lacking.

The most common anaesthetics are noble gases. Although we know they are very soluble in fat (which is thought to affect the function of some proteins in nerve cells, which are surrounded by lipids) – the exact mechanism is still a mystery. Of all the noble gases, xenon is the most potent anaesthetic. It is extremely soluble in lipids and rapidly removed from the body, allowing a quick recovery.

Xenon has another useful property though: it increases oxygen delivery. We do, however, know how this works. Xenon boosts the production of proteins called hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs), which go on to stimulate the production of erythropoietin – a hormone that increases the production of red blood cells.

As red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body, this increases the amount of oxygen that reaches the organs, and the muscles. In sport therefore, xenon can increase endurance capacity and has been used as a doping agent. It is only recently though that this practise has been outlawed. In Russia, use of xenon was approved by the government as part of training for the Olympics. It was only in 2014, following insurmountable evidence that xenon enhances performance, that the World Anti Doping Agency decided to ban the gas.

As well as human sports, noble gas-based doping agents have been used in horse racing, encouraging researchers at the Hong Kong Jockey Club Racing Laboratory – a world class drug-testing facility for equine and human bodily fluids – to investigate further. “Xenon is alleged to have been used in human and horse sports to enhance performance, while krypton, a potential and less expensive HIF activator, has recently been advertised on the internet for enhancing performance,” explains Dr Terence S. M. Wan.

As Dr Wan suggests, krypton has a similar biological activity to xenon and may therefore have a similar effect on red blood cells. Moreover, because it is around two thirds cheaper than xenon, it could become a popular doping agent. Recent advertisements on the internet selling krypton to increase lung capacity for athletic training make the threat very real.

Horse to human?

Following recent evidence, such as an entire cylinder of xenon being found in a horse trainer’s stable in Australia, the use of xenon has become a major concern for the horseracing industry. This method for detecting xenon in horses (as well as krypton, an emerging doping agent) may help to improve control in the industry. The method, which has good sensitivity, specificity and precision, could also be useful for human sports, where use of noble gases is also a concern.

In fact, xenon has already been detected in human blood samples using a similar gas chromatography-based method, with a LOD of 500 pmol/ml. As this method has a significantly lower LOD, it shows great promise. For now, Hong Kong Jockey Club Racing Laboratory plans to determine the dose required to increase red blood cell production in horses, before performing a full-scale trial.

Important intermediates

Using a range of GC-based methods, this paper identifies previously unknown intermediates in marine aerosols. “Their structural identification and seasonal variations provide insights into the sources and formation pathways of organic aerosols,” explains Professor Kimitaka Kawamura of Hokkaido University, Japan. The authors say these diacids are likely to be important intermediates in the break-down of organic aerosols, which may be helpful for future research into the climate impacts of aerosols.

Related Links

Drug Test. Analysis, 2016, Early View paper. Kwok et al.. Simultaneous detection of xenon and krypton in equine plasma by gas chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry for doping control.

Xenon: elemental anaesthesia in clinical practice

Article by Ryan De Vooght-Johnson

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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