Detecting The Undetectable -- February 18, 1998
World sport is getting closer to having reliable tests for two bioengineered hormones--human growth hormone (hGH) and erythropoietin (EPO)--that are believed to be widely used in international sport, including swimming, according to Swimming World editor, Phillip Whitten. Until now, these performance-enhancing drugs have been undetectable.
As we reported earlier, Novo Nordisk, the Danish drug company that supplied the human growth hormone that was discovered by Australian customs officials in the bag of Chinese swimmer Yuan Yuan before the World Championships, believes it has a reliable test to detect hGH. Novo Nordisk officials met secretly with the International Olympic Committee in Amsterdam last month. There is no word yet on the outcome of that meeting.
Now, German research scientists Wilhelm Schaenzer of Cologne, claims to have devised the first test to detect EPO, which stimulates production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to the muscles. EPO is thought to be the drug of choice among endurance athletes: distance runners, cyclists, cross-country skiers and triathletes. Distance swimmers may also be using the drug. Dr. Schaenzer plans to unveil his test at a conference in Cologne on May 16-20.
Last month, another researcher, Antonio Bargelesi, a physician working in Genoa, Italy, announced a breakthrough in developing a test to detect EPO. The IOC called Bargelesi's work "a significant step."
In January, former Belgian cyclist Eddy Planckaert became the latest athlete to admit to using EPO. "EPO is a fantastic product," said the former cycling champ. "It makes you 12 to 15 percent better at the top level. That means something."
Among the things it has meant is death. The deaths of 20 cyclists have been attributed to the use of EPO without medical supervision. The hormone thickens the blood, increasing the risk of a heart attack.