Using erythropoietin, or EPO, to improve results in elite cycling races such as the Tour de France is pointless, according to a Dutch study that looks at existing research.
The study, published today in the British Journal of Pharmacology, looked at 13 studies conducted between 1991 and 2010. The authors concluded that there is “no scientific evidence that it does enhance performance, but there is evidence that using it in sport could place a user’s health and life at risk.”
EPO is an endurance-boosting hormone that stimulates red- blood cell production, which may improve the amount of oxygen carried to muscles. It is used to treat people with anemia but was banned in sports by the International Olympic Committee in 1990. A test for EPO was introduced at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, according the website of the World Anti-Doping Agency, known as WADA.
The use of EPO has been rife in cycling. In 1998, the Festina team was thrown out of the Tour de France -- the sport’s most grueling and prestigious race -- after its coach was caught with banned performance-enhancing drugs including EPO. In August, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency stripped American cyclist Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and banned him for life for using prohibited substances. In October, the agency, known as USADA, said the Texan had used drugs including EPO and testosterone throughout his cycling career.
“An elite cyclist runs on technique, on muscle power which is supplied by oxygen and glucose and amino acids and foods, on team tactics, on weather, on millions of things,” lead researcher Adam Cohen said in an interview. “To assume that one of these factors, which is delivery of oxygen to tissue, is going to clinch the whole thing, is rather naïve.”
Cohen is a professor in clinical pharmacology based at the Centre for Human Drug Research in Leiden, the Netherlands.
“EPO has been the subject of much research with regards to its physiological effects and potential consequence on human performance,” WADA director general David Howman said in an e- mail to Bloomberg News.
“WADA is totally satisfied with the credibility of this research and consequently EPO is prohibited under section 2.1 of the list of prohibited substances and methods,” he added.
“Most of the research has been done on people who aren’t actually elite cyclists,” Cohen said. He called for more testing to be done on professional athletes and better education regarding health risks such as blood clots that may result in a stroke or heart attack.
The lack of evidence to support EPO boosting performance in elite athletes may serve as a better prevention measure than current anti-doping methods, Cohen said.
“If you assume that Mr. X. was actually a mediocre cyclist and became very good just by injecting stuff, that seems premature,” Cohen said. “Once you start explaining that to people, and they believe you on the basis of data, they are probably less willing to do these sorts of things. So in the prevention, it is better than trying to chase these people to their homes, extract urine at unexpected moments and hope that you find something. It costs an enormous amount of money.”
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