Doping to Win: Professor John Rasko explains EPO abuse

John Rasko ABC CatalystCentenary Institute’s Professor John Rasko AO, Group Head of our Gene and Stem Cell Therapy lab, talked to Dr Maryanne Demasi about the use of life enhancing drugs in sports on the latests episode of Catalyst.

Professor Rasko explains how Erythropoietin (EPO) improves a persons stamina, as Catalyst investigates the substances at the forefront of the sports doping controversy.

An interesting question that results from the discussion, is should we be administering health tests rather than doping tests?

Watch the full episode here and find out about Professor Rasko’s research.

Transcript - Professor Rasko’s Segment:

Dr Maryanne Demasi

Dr Maryanne Demasi

For endurance sports like cycling or marathons, there’s a different drug of choice. By now, most of us would be familiar with EPO, short for erythropoietin.

NARRATION

It’s the peptide that disgraced Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong was accused of taking.

Prof John Rasko

When the body senses a low oxygen-carrying capacity, for whatever reason, it squirts out a little bit more EPO from the kidneys, which activates the stem cells to make more red blood cells. So by increasing the body’s ability to carry oxygen, which is what the red cells do, that thereby transfers more oxygen to the muscles which are performing during endurance competition.

NARRATION

Another way of achieving a similar result is to have a blood transfusion.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

What typically happens is that athletes are bled a few months before the race and their red cells are stored in packs like this one. Then, on race day, they’re reinfused, giving them an instant boost in red cells.

John Rasko ABC Catalyst

Prof John Rasko

A unit of blood like this, it’s concentrated, so if you infuse that, there are risks of the blood sludging, it turns into pea soup, and so it can cause problems with stroke, with heart attack or clots in the vessels.

NARRATION

Between 1987 and 1990, 18 top European cyclists mysteriously died in their sleep after taking EPO.

Prof John Rasko

Well, of course this is all done behind closed doors, so there are always gonna be increased chances of infection or complications setting in.

NARRATION

Doping by blood transfusion is difficult to detect, but scientists are working on new ways to track reinfused blood.


Prof John Rasko

Screen Shot 2013-06-28 at 3.45.08 PM

It’s possible to detect the minute amounts of plastic that’s in the bag, and that’s one way of doing it. But another way of doing it is to possibly try and detect the so-called ageing defect of blood. As soon as the blood’s taken out of the body, it starts to age in an accelerated way, and that could be detected in the athletic cheats.

NARRATION

Normally, the total volume of red cells in the blood is about 45%. The cut off to pass a doping test is 49%.

Prof John Rasko

If you administer EPO or you give yourself a big series of blood transfusions, that packed cell volume can increase 50%, even 60%, and above.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

So how do they avoid getting caught?

Prof John Rasko

They can either dilute their blood by adding saline or they can simply take off enough blood to get it just below 50%, and that’s exactly what happens.

- End -

Watch the episode and read the full transcript here. (Professor Rasko talks about EPO from 10 minutes, 40 seconds.

(Featured in ABC Catalyst, Series 14, Episode 10: ‘Doping To Win, Life Enhancing Drugs’ - aired on Thursday 27th June 2013)

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