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A BAD BOOST
As their widespread use of anabolic steroids suggests, athletes are always seeking ways, even risky ones, to boost performance. Yet steroids, which athletes have now been using for at least 30 years, are no longer on the cutting edge of cheating technology. Some athletes are turning their attention to a genetically engineered version of a substance known as erythropoietin, or EPO, which is potentially even more dangerous than steroids.
EPO is a naturally occurring hormone, produced by the kidneys, that stimulates the production of red blood cells. The advent of recombinant DNA technology, commonly referred to as cloning, has made it possible to produce EPO in the laboratory. Recombinant EPO, or rEPO, is virtually identical to the natural hormone, and current drug tests cannot distinguish it from the real thing, making it appealing to athletes who want to cheat.
Like steroids, rEPO has legitimate medical uses. When a person's kidneys become damaged, EPO levels fall and he or she becomes anemic. In the past, acute-anemia patients have required regular blood transfusions. The development of rEPO has been a breakthrough therapy for the more than 100,000 Americans with anemia.
It didn't take endurance athletes long to recognize the theoretical benefits of using rEPO. Red blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body. The more red blood cells an athlete's blood contains, the more oxygen it will carry, thereby improving performance.
So far, only one study has been done to measure the benefits of rEPO on athletes. Bj�rn Ekblom, a Swedish exercise physiologist who pioneered blood doping—the injection of stored blood to improve performance—tested the effects of rEPO on 15 Swedish athletes. He concluded that an elite athlete could cut as much as 30 seconds off a 20-minute racing time. Because Ekblom's research hasn't been published and there is some controversy over his methods, his numbers may prove to be unreliable.
However, what no one seems to doubt is that boosting a person's red blood cell count to unnatural levels through the use of rEPO is dangerous. The higher the percentage of red blood cells, the thicker the blood. And the thicker the blood, the greater the chance of developing blood clots and therefore of suffering a stroke or a heart attack. When the red blood cell count gets too high, says Dr. Randy Eichner, a hematologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, "the blood becomes mud."
No one is sure how widespread the use of rEPO is in sports. According to ABC's World News Tonight, in the past two years as many as 16 Dutch cyclists have died under mysterious circumstances. Some sports-medicine experts blame the deaths on rEPO abuse, and although doctors for the Dutch cyclists acknowledge that the cyclists died from "some kind of heart failure," they deny any connection with rEPO. Says Eichner, "Athletes who abuse rEPO are playing with fire. At some point we need to ask, 'What price glory?' "
BUT THE CANDLES WORK FINE