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Blood doping
By Staff
Date: 8/25/2006
Blood doping

Blood doping
Prof. Delbeke of the anti-doping lab in Ghent explains the intricacies of blood doping to us.

A new doping affair shocked the peloton a few weeks ago. No EPO, steroids or amphetamines this time around. The doping suspects keep it deceivingly simple: they drain some of their own blood and re-inject it when they need a boost. Blood doping was a common practice in the 70ís but was rapidly abandoned for more practical means of doping. Doping hunter Prof. Delbeke of the anti-doping lab in Ghent explains the intricacies of blood doping to us.

SM: What does blood doping do exactly?
Prof. Delbeke:
The effects of a transfusion are the same as those of EPO. It gives you a surplus of red blood cells. Red blood cells improve the circulation of oxygen in your blood. If you can take up more oxygen you will be able to make heavier efforts and your endurance will improve. With half a litre of blood you immediately gain an extra 10% of red blood cells and your bodyís capacity to take up oxygen increases with 8%. Thatís huge. Most prefer to drain half a litre of blood during height training, because the amount of red blood cells rises slightly at great heights and as such the effect will be greater when transfusing.

SM: Blood doping was a common practice in the 70ís. Why did it disappear from the peloton for so long?
The first time we encountered blood doping was in some Finnish runners and at an American cycling team. Back then it wasnít on the doping list, these days it obviously is. The method became in disuse because itís complicated to do. First you need to drain blood from the athlete during a training period, and then you need to try to store that package of blood until it has to be used, which isnít very practical or easy.

This used to be countered by athletes by using the blood of someone else with the same blood group instead, but we can trace that relatively easy by now. Because having a similar blood group is one thing, but we also have a series of antigens on every red blood cell. You either have those antigens, or you donít. So your score needs to be 0 or 100 for every type. We check for 12 of those antigens, so the chances of someone having a completely identical series of antigens are marginally small. If you are injected blood from someone with an antigen you donít have, your score for that particular antigen will be 10 and youíll get caught. And vice versa youíll score 90 if one of your antigens isnít present in the donorís blood. So, using your own blood is the only method left.

SM: Can you trace a transfusion with oneís own blood?
No, for the moment we canít. Next week Iím attending a congress in KŲln and I hope we can take the next step there. The labs didnít give blood doping much attention the last couple of years because we thought it wasnít being used anymore because itís so impractical. Why would the riders be messing around with blood transfusions when much simpler methods exist such as EPO?

SM: But shouldnít a blood transfusion leave marks on oneís arms?
Of course it does, but pricks on your arm donít mean anything as such. Iíve seen riders report for doping controls with blood still dripping from their arms! Back then they still had half an hour to report for a doping control and he had probably been given an IV to thin his blood and lower his hematocrit value. But you canít base any solid evidence on that.

SM: So why do people return to blood transfusions if itís that impractical?
Because we are closing in on EPO and other methods. First the cycling union started with blood controls. Riders had to hand in a blood sample the morning before a race and everyone who tested 50 or higher was sidelined for two weeks. Then we were able to trace EPO in urine samples. If you were caught that way youíd get suspended for two years. But as long as we could only control athletes at the start of a race it was possible to use EPO without too many risks. EPO remains traceable for 3 days after injecting it, but the maximum effect is 8 days later Ėwhen it canít be traced anymore. So on the racing day all the dopers would be neatly prepared, with regular hematocrit values. Then we started with surprise controls. And we found a way to trace EPO in someoneís blood for a long time after it was administered. So the net is getting tighter, and people reach for other methods like blood doping.

SM: How long can you store a package of blood?
For about a month in the fridge. But during that time certain components of the blood are slowly deteriorating, so the longer you store it the lower the quality gets. If you separate the plasma you can store it for a lot longer. But a regular doctor canít do so, youíd need the help of a professional transfusion centre in order to do that.

SM: So youíd need to drain half a litre of blood from a rider during a training period. Wouldnít that threaten a riderís health during a intensive training?
Yeah, youíd definitely feel the effects of losing half a litre of blood. I assume the riders would just train a little bit less intensive when they just gave some blood. There are rumours about riders using EPO just after doing so, by the way. That way they can quickly grow a lot of red blood cells again and compensate for the blood loss. Itís just a rumour, but apparently thatís the newest way of doing things.

SM: Is blood doping done in other sports?
At the moment itís hard to say. We donít know much about blood doping yet. Only a few labs in the world are properly equipped to investigate blood doping done with other peopleís blood: Sydney, Lausanne, Athens and recently also KŲln and Ghent. And as I said before; we canít trace transfusions with oneís own blood at all. The Flemish government is going to start testing for blood doping and growth hormones soon. They gave us 148.300Ä in order to get the right facilities to test for blood doping. Weíre all set up, we just need blood samples. I donít know when exactly, but I expect the Flemish government will announce it soon enough.

SM: How do you see the use of doping evolving?
Our results have been stable for years at about 4-5% of positives. Thatís quite a lot in Europe. Whatís remarkable though is that weíre only halfway 2006 and already caught four athletes using EPO and Aranesp. We usually only catch one or two a year. So theyíre still doing it.

Source: Sport/Voetbal magazine Tour special

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