Doping – 13 years ago…

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I was reading through my Forensic Science MSc project this evening to help prepare a lecture when I came across the following quote:

Many events have recently had problems with doping. The Tour de France was overshadowed in 1998 by seizures from competing teams of products such as erythropoietin (EPO), a peptide hormone that increases erythrocite concentration, thereby increasing VO2 max. The continued use of this substance can lead to blood clotting and death.  EPO is thought, however, to be highly used as there is not a test for its administration currently in use.

This was written in 1999.  Note the use of ‘ not a test.. currently in use’.  The initial EPO tests were implemented in time for the Sydney Olympic Games in the year 2000.  The test was based on a blood screen followed by a urine sample.  In later years the urine sample was deemed reliable enough on its own.

EPO is produced naturally in the body and stimulates the production of red blood cells.  The natural production adds challenges to the anti doping scientist.  The urine test is based on determining the proportion of the EPO that is from artificial sources rather than that which is naturally produced.  Initially the threshold was set conservatively and allowed many people to avoid detection.  This threshold was changed a few years later and now gives greater power of detection of EPO use.

So did the test stop EPO use?

Well, partially it seems. The cyclists started to inject small amounts of EPO into the blood directly, rather than fatty tissue, which means it gets removed from the body much more quickly.  They called this method microdosing.

People also moved on to other drugs and methods. There have been new versions of EPO released, which have been used by sportsmen and women.  Tests have then been developed and implemented.  For example there was a spate of positive tests for CERA (Continuous Erythropoietin Receptor Activator, stimulates EPO production) at the Olympic Games and Tour de France in 2008.

Blood doping was the next big thing.  The book from Tyler Hamilton (Secret Race) and the USADA judgement on Lance Armstrong and associates detail the methods  these cyclists used, much of which involved blood.  A ‘bag; of blood was removed and re infused around three weeks later or as required.

In summary

The tests advance.  The doped field moves on. At different points in time one will have the lead over the other, then it will switch back.

Please see my initial thoughts on the Lance Armstrong case here.

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Dr Tom Bassindale

About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. Dr B is currently a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. And yes... he watches CSI.