The New York Times had an article today about EPO drug testing. It sounds like a joke. I have avoided addressing drug usage on my website, but this is crazy. So, all these guys that are caught using EPO have an out. Of course, that is if they haven’t already confessed. I figure you can drug test just about any of these guys and tell them that they are positive for EPO. Most of them probably wouldn’t even appeal because, of course, they take it. I do think that the mentality of drug usage/non usage has improved dramatically the last couple years. But, just watch the races and the speeds. Nothing has changed that much yet. But, hopefully we’re on a better track. Story below.
Study Shows Problems With Olympic-Style Tests
Athletes who want to cheat by injecting themselves with a performance-enhancing drug that boosts their blood cell count can do so with little risk of getting caught, a new study indicates, possibly exposing another flaw in what is regarded as the world’s toughest anti-doping program.
A urine test that is supposed to detect the drug, and that will be used in the Tour de France next month and in the Olympics in August, is likely to miss it, the study says. The substance, recombinant human erythropoietin, known as EPO, stimulates bone marrow to speed up production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. And with more blood cells, endurance athletes like cyclists and distance runners can perform better.
EPO is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, an international group that promotes and coordinates efforts to stop doping in sports and whose program is followed by the International Olympic Committee. The agency defends its EPO test and questioned the latest study.
Although athletes have said EPO is in widespread use, few have tested positive. Most of the athletes who have been linked to doping in recent years have been caught not through drug testing, but rather through criminal investigations. In the August 2006 issue of the journal Blood, the American lab accredited to conduct EPO testing reported only 9 positive tests out of 2,600 urine samples.
The new study may help explain why: the test simply failed.
The study, to be published Thursday in the online edition of the Journal of Applied Physiology, was conducted last summer and fall by a renowned lab in Denmark, the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center. The investigators gave eight young men EPO and collected urine samples on multiple occasions before, during and after the men were doping. The men’s urine samples were then sent to two labs accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and EPO tests were requested.
The first lab found some samples positive and a few others suspicious. (A suspicious result does not bring sanctions for doping.) The lab also declared a sample positive, although the man had stopped taking the drug and it should have been gone from his urine. His previous urine sample, obtained when he was taking EPO, was negative in this lab’s test.
The second lab did not deem any urine sample positive for EPO and found only a few to be suspicious. The two labs did not agree on which samples were suspicious.
The anti-doping agency’s rules say that if an athlete’s urine shows traces of EPO, it must be tested again by a different accredited lab. The athlete is declared guilty of doping only if the second lab also detects EPO. By that rule, none of the subjects would have been charged with using EPO, even though their red blood cell counts rose and their performances on an endurance test improved.
“The paper certainly is an eye-opener,” said Don Catlin, the chief executive of Anti-Doping Research, a nonprofit group in Los Angeles. “It’s quite remarkable.”
But Olivier Rabin, scientific director of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said his group had tested its labs, sending samples of urine from people who were taking EPO and from people who were not. In general, he said, the labs agreed. But Dr. Rabin added that when the agency sends samples to its labs, they are not sent anonymously — the lab knows the samples are from WADA.
The agency does not share data from the tests on its labs, so it was not possible to determine how the organization’s research compared with the latest study.
“I have never seen such a drastic situation as the one reported in this article,” said Dr. Rabin, who questioned whether it reflected the true state of EPO testing.
The findings in the latest study should be no surprise, said Charles E. Yesalis, a professor of sports science at Pennsylvania State University. For decades, he said, anti-doping authorities have claimed they have tests that work and for decades athletes have been taking drugs without getting caught.
The anti-doping authorities, he said, “remind me of little boys whistling in the graveyard.”
Still, the study’s lead author, Carsten Lundby, a physiologist at the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center, said he had mixed feelings about publishing the paper. His concern was that if he laid out the test’s weakness, he was telling athletes that they can probably take EPO without getting caught.
“It’s a nasty problem,” said Dr. Joris Delanghe, a professor of clinical chemistry at the University of Ghent in Belgium. He and Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic wrote an editorial accompanying the paper.
The finding is especially provocative, Dr. Joyner noted, because only last month, another study, by researchers in Sweden, called into question another urine test for a performance-enhancing substance, testosterone. The investigators showed that a substantial number of men and, in particular, Asian men, have a gene deletion that allows them to take testosterone and reap all the drug’s benefits but escape detection. The testosterone test, too, will be used at the Olympics and the Tour de France.
The EPO study involved eight young men, university students in Copenhagen, who agreed to be injected with EPO over a four-week period and have their blood cell counts and athletic performance monitored before, during and after they took the drug. The EPO regimen was similar to regimens used by athletes who were trying to cheat. The men had EPO injections every other day for two weeks to get the process going and then had one injection per week to maintain their increased blood cell production.
The researchers were primarily interested in learning whether the young men’s athletic performance improved — it did, and markedly so. At maximum effort, the men’s performances improved by 9 to 16 percent. But at a slightly lower level of exertion, performance improved by 50 percent, Dr. Lundby said. Athletes taking EPO can go 50 percent longer at that somewhat lower level of effort, which can make a major difference in an endurance event like the Tour de France or a marathon, Dr. Lundby said.
The investigators asked whether the sole reason for the improvement was increased numbers of red blood cells, and it was. But they also realized they had an opportunity to investigate the validity of the EPO test. So, without telling the anti-doping labs what they were doing, the investigators sent the men’s urine samples for EPO testing.
One of the two labs, which the researchers refer to as Lab B in their paper, never declared a sample positive, even when the men were taking high doses of EPO every other day. Lab A was inconsistent. It found EPO during the high dose phase. But in the maintenance phase, it found EPO in only 6 of the 16 samples.
It is not terribly surprising that the labs disagreed, researchers said. The EPO test, like urine tests for other hormones, including growth hormone, is extremely difficult. The lab must look for tiny chemical differences between the EPO a person makes naturally and EPO that is injected as a drug.
“It’s super-difficult,” Dr. Lundby said. “The difference between the EPO you have in your body and the recombinant EPO is not very great.”
The drug, which is used to treat patients with kidney disease, cancer and other illnesses, is made by animal cells, typically Chinese hamster ovary cells. Researchers said there were new forms of EPO and new ways of getting its effects without injecting recombinant EPO, making it even harder to detect doping.
“The list of these substances is growing,” Dr. Lundby said. “From a patient’s point of view, it’s great, but from an anti-doping view, it’s bad. The list of substances you must test for will grow and grow.”
And the possibility of a 50 percent improvement in performance has to be tempting, Dr. Lundby said. “So what do you do? You take it.”
“It doesn’t sound good for anyone who wants a drug-free sport,” he added.