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
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
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