Contador Accused of Blood Doping
Over the past decades, different participants in the Tour de France have been accused of using perfomance enhancing substances. Alberto Contador has been accused of blood doping. What is this and how can it enhance performance?
Red blood cells (RBC) are one of the essential cells found in the blood. These cells have a life span of approximately 28 days. The RBC, also known as an erythrocytes, travel throughout the human body, carrying oxygen to the cells and tissues and taking away carbon dioxide. In the lungs, the RBC dumps the carbon dioxide and picks up more oxygen to meet the needs of the body.
The body naturally produces a protein call erythropoiten (EPO). EPO controls RBC production in the bone marrow, where the RBC is made.
Blood doping is a practice where athletes will transfuse blood in order to increase the number of RBC in their body. By doing this, the athlete has the ability to carry more oxygen, at any given time, in the blood, and get more oxygen to the tissues. This delays to onset and progress of tiredness and fatigue . . . increasing the endurance of the athlete.
There are two types of transfusion that an athlete can receive: autologous or homologous. An autologous blood transfusion occurs when an athlete has blood removed from the body, which is then stored. This blood is then given back to the athlete at the time around an event. This is the athlete’s own blood. A homologous blood transfusion occurs when a donor, with the same blood type, has donated their blood. The athlete gets the transfusion around the time of an event. In either case, the result is the same . . . increasing the number of RBCs in the circulating in the blood.
In the 1980’s, a company began making EPO synthetically. Although used for medical purposes, some athletes found a new way to blood dope using EPO. By taking this synthetic EPO, they could stimulate their own bodies to increase the production of RBCs.
Both types of transfusions have risks. These include infections and the toxicity of improperly stored blood. EPO and the transfusions have further risks. As an athlete increases the number of RBCs circulating in the blood, the blood tends to become thicker. The thicker blood is more difficult to pump throughout the body, so the heart must work harder to move the blood from place to place. In doing so, the athlete can suffer from a heart attack or heart failure. Furthermore, the thicker blood can cause blood clots in the leg, lungs, or even a stroke (blood clot in the brain).
TESTING FOR BLOOD DOPING
Testing for blood doping is now performed by screening an athlete’s blood and urine. The blood can be examined for the quantity of RBCs in the blood, looking at the consistency of the number of mature and immature RBCs (there are more mature RBCs in blood doping individuals), or by looking at cell markers to make sure that only cells of the athletes are in the blood.
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