EPO and Blood Testing
Lance Armstrong made headlines last week when he finally confessed to using performance enhancing drugs during his cycling career. Armstrong, the former winner of Le Tour De France for seven straight years-received a lifetime ban from the competition by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). He was stripped of his titles and many of his sponsors backed out of funding his brand. Soon after, Armstrong voluntarily stepped down from his position as chairman of his charitable foundation Livestrong. Despite all that, Armstrong insisted he was innocent until last week during an exclusive interview with Oprah Winfrey.
EPO and Blood Doping: What is blood doping?
Armstrong has been connected to many drugs, but one of the most well-known drugs he used is “EPO.” Use of EPO is also known as “blood doping” and it is a common method of enhancing performance among athletes.
The term blood doping originally meant the transfusion of red blood cells. Red blood cells are suited to this process because they can be frozen and later thawed out without much loss of activity. In the 1980’s, a new form of blood doping became prevalent. Athletes began using a method that involved erythropoietin (EPO). EPO is a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells. It is used to treat anemia.
EPO and Blood Doping: How does it work?
Without sufficient levels of red blood cells, a person can get exhausted, unhealthy and depressed. Red blood cells are the cells that carry oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body. Muscles need oxygen to perform. So naturally, when our red blood cells get boosted, we get a boost of energy and our muscles can perform longer.
EPO and Blood Doping: What’s the danger?
As more and more doctors began to prescribe this “wonder drug” to patients, scientists were discovering that EPO isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It multiplies red blood cells, but too many red blood cells can make the blood thicker and more viscous. The heart has to work overtime to pump it. For this reason, EPO raised the risks of strokes, blood clots and heart attacks. It may even cause cancer cells to multiply more quickly. This is especially scary since EPO is often prescribed to treat cancer patients with chemotherapy-induced anemia.
EPO and Blood Doping: How is it detected?
EPO is difficult to detect, since it is a naturally occurring hormone. There were no test for laboratory-created EPO until the early 2000s, but even then it was barely detectable. An inherent problem with the test is that, whereas pharmaceutical EPO may be undetectable in the circulation a few days after administration, its effects may persist for several weeks.
Also, many times an athlete will combine methods of blood doping. The risk of detection is much lower when EPO is used long before a race, but you want those high levels of red blood cells. Athletes will inject EPO several weeks before a race, then when the blood is chock full of red blood cells; they take it out and store it until race time.
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