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EPO, blood doping: what is it all about?

Jan Hearne • Sep 4, 2012 at 9:30 AM

Lance Armstrong may or may not have blood doped and taken EPO, though many see his refusal to take his case to arbitration as an admission of guilt.

Anyone who follows professional cycling is familiar with the practices, though many of us don’t really know the specifics. Frankly it’s easier to ignore the whole issue and focus on the races.

I do not condone doping; I just hope that my favorites don’t. And yes, I know Frank Schleck is in trouble, but if he insists he’s innocent, and there’s a reasonable explanation, I have to take him at his word. (Frank is not accused of using EPO or blood doping. He tested positive for a diuretic called Xipimide during the 2012 Tour de France. His case is still under investigation.)

In the interest of fairness, though I am not a Lance Armstrong fan, I thought I should take the time to educate myself on what he allegedly did.

EPO or erythropoietin is a protein hormone produced by the kidneys that promotes the formation of red blood cells by the bone marrow. According to Web MD, EPO “is the prime regulator of red blood cell production,” and anyone who has taken sixth grade science remembers that hemoglobin within red blood cells carries oxygen throughout the body.

This wondrous cooperation between kidney cells and bone marrow has been exploited by athletes. If one is dragging oneself over the Alps or Pyrenees on a bike after riding more than a thousand miles, it would be not only a benefit but also an advantage to have more oxygen in your blood than the next guy.

EPO made in a lab can be injected into the athlete’s body, and until detection technology caught up with doping science, it was impossible to tell the difference between naturally occurring EPO and EPO created in a laboratory. Cheaters were identified by examining the ratio of red blood cells to white cells and plasma.

Before EPO, there were transfusions. Weeks before a big race a rider could give a unit of his blood, which was stored. After his body had completely recovered from the transfusion, he would transfuse his own blood back into his body, giving himself an extra unit of oxygen-rich blood in time for the start of the race.

Both practices are incredibly dangerous, carrying with them the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Using needles can lead to serious infections.

In a documentary on doping by PBS, Dr. Gary Wadler, M.D., former chair of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List Committee, said he reported a series of deaths in the 1980s from EPO. “The cyclists, all in their 20s, ‘mysteriously’ died after taking EPO.”

It is hard for me to fathom why a man who nearly died from cancer would inject life-threatening drugs in order to win a race, even if it is the greatest race in the world.

I will believe Lance Armstrong doped if Big George Hincapie, Armstrong’s former teammate who allegedly testified before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said he did.

And hearing that will be a whole lot like being told there is no Santa Claus.

Jan Hearne is the Press Tempo editor. Reach her at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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