False positives and bad interpretation of analytical chemistry results happen: Case Study of Jake Gibb

I love the Olympics. Everything about it is awesome in my opinion.

From the pageantry to the personal stories of triumph…

The competition, but also the community of it all is so very inspiring.

One of the stories the NBC featured was that of Jake Gibb.

Jake Gibb represents the United States
Jake Gibb represents the United States

If you recall, he was a 2012 Olympic Volleyball competitor for the US. He represented the US well and honorably.

Before the Olympics, he, like all Olympians, was subject to US Anti-Doping Agency/World Anti-Doping Agency testing. In a routine out-of-competition doping test of his urine, he was reported as being in violation of the WADA/USADA doping policy.

According to reports, he was absolutely shocked. He knew he was not doping. He knew he was clean.

But numbers are numbers, aren’t they?

When he asked for details, he learned that one of the markers and compounds that are monitored was elevated. It was his beta-hCG result. Free beta-subunit of hCG in the human pituitary is known as the human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). Normal beta-hCG levels in males is one to two nanograms per milliliter of blood. It is very very low level. Gibb was reported to have many, many more times than this “normal” level.

In females hCG can be a reliable marker of pregnancy. In sport, hCG is used after steroid cycles to stimulate the production of testosterone, which is suppressed by the steroids. Thus, its detection is part of standard steroid testing by WADA and USADA.

He was suspended from competition.

After further review, it was determined that he was not a doper, but rather a different type of tragedy was visited upon him. He was in the stages of cancer: testicular cancer. According to the scientific literature, elevated beta-hCG levels can be the result of testicular cancer.

Gibb’s suspension was eventually lifted.

He underwent three rounds of chemotherapy.

He competed honorably in the Olympics representing the US.

What was reported in the media as a “false positive” actually wasn’t. His beta-hCG was definitely elevated. The analytical chemistry wasn’t wrong. It was the interpretation of the analytical chemistry was wrong.

This type of scenario is not terribly uncommon in a forensic context as we wrote before in: Pharmacology For Lawyers Part 6: Elucidating Pharmacodynamic Effect from an Analytical Chemistry Result

So numbers aren’t numbers, are they?

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