New Allegations: Lance Armstrong Doped With an Experimental Drug

By Andrew Moseman | January 20, 2011 10:58 am

Steroids. Human growth hormone. EPO. The cast of characters implicated in major athletic doping scandals are familiar to fans who follow major sports. Nor are accusations of doping anything new to Lance Armstrong, the seven-time champion of the Tour de France and most famous American participant in a sport constantly marred by scandal.

Armstrong has always denied the doping charges, and he continues to in the wake of a major investigation published this week by Sports Illustrated. But this time around, reporters Selena Roberts and David Epstein allege something new: That Armstrong illegally acquired and took an experimental drug called HemAssist, which never got beyond clinical trials.

So what is this stuff? HemAssist, developed by Baxter Pharmaceuticals, belongs to a group of drugs called hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers, or HBOC. Simply, they are blood substitutes, ones that mimic the structure of hemoglobin—the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen. According to a scientific source we spoke to, who researched these drugs for years but preferred to provide background anonymously, the drugs mimic the structure of hemoglobin to more than 99 percent, and can deliver oxygen the way natural hemoglobin does.

Biotech researchers have been developing HBOCs for decades because of their exciting potential applications. For example, these blood substitutes could be taken out on a battlefield where stocks of real blood could not be refrigerated and preserved, and given to wounded soldiers to send a rush of oxygen to their critical organs like the brain and the heart. That ability to pack an oxygen punch is what makes HBOCs a tempting target for a doper.

Yet for all their promise, HemAssist and its ilk failed to reach the market. By 1998, HemAssist had reached Phase III clinical trials, the most advanced stage. But Baxter pulled back the drug when tests suggested it was not as safe as real blood—in an emergency room trial in Europe, more people died in the HemAssist group than in the real blood control group. PolyHeme, a version by Northfield Laboratories, Inc. of Evanston, Illinois, got just as far as HemAssist if not farther, our source says, before it too was pulled. The drug Hemopure, by Biopure of Cambridge, Massachusetts, become the first and only HBOC approved for human use when South Africa allowed it. But that approval was revoked in 2008. (That didn’t please the United States Navy, which has been trying for a blood substitute for years).

What went wrong? The death knell for Hemopure, and perhaps the symbolic end for these drugs, came in 2008 with the publication of a review article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to the data, the article said, these blood substitutes are connected to “significantly increased risk of death and MI” (myocardial infarction, more commonly called heart attack).

The review article’s main finding is that the blood substitutes showed “increased risks without clinical benefit.” But, our source says, a fundamental reason for failure here is that the FDA process makes it extremely difficult to show the “clinical benefit” in this case. For one thing, proving that you’re as good as or better than a current drug is one thing, but proving that you’re as good as or better than real blood—which nature has had so much time to develop—is far more formidable. And secondly, our source says, because of the synthetic blood’s nature and purpose, they only way to test it on humans was with people in dire straits: people who were too sick to have much chance of getting better, like the traumatic injury victims in the HemAssist trial. Not an easy way to prove your product’s efficacy. Scientists haven’t given up on HBOCs, but our source says the only way for the drugs to clear that regulatory hurdle would be to become so good they show a “Lazarus effect”—an ability to turn around patients who are very near to death.

What does all this mean for Armstrong? The champion cyclist won his first Tour in 1999, the year after HemAssist discontinued its trials. So if the charge that he acquired and took it is true, it would mean he got samples of an unapproved drug that were created for clinical trials—something that wouldn’t make the Food and Drug Administration very happy.

And would it have helped him keep pedaling? In theory, absolutely. Animal tests demonstrated HemAssist’s potential to carry oxygen in the bloodstream and to the vital organs. But, our source notes, researchers performed these tests on animals that lost a lot of blood; it’s hard to predict the physiological effects on an athlete with a full blood supply who is looking for a boost. What we can say is that it’s sad that a once-promising drug had to re-emerge in the news this way.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
  • Bill

    The Armstrong case will never rest until someone can find reason to strip him of his titles. It’s like you’re not permitted to just be that good at anything.

  • Taylor

    No, you are permitted to be that good you’re just not permitted to cheat, and he cheated.

  • GuruOfChem

    I hear that next week the History Channel is airing an episode of Ancient Aliens which conclusively demonstrates that Armstrong got advanced PEDs from extraterrestrials…

    Seriously, folks, when will the retroactive witch hunt stop? If so many people trying this hard for this long to find credible evidence have not yet done so, does that not suggest that there actually isn’t any evidence to be found?

  • Suz

    Evidence…Can anyone say cancer?

  • AVT

    Evidence…Can anyone say cancer? WTF are you saying….humans with very, very small minds. I am with Bill and all those folks who have moved on. Cheating….find the frigging evidence. Had Lance doped he would have been caught..WHY….because the tests are random…..there are many small minded humans who can believe that someone can be that good. Grow the f*ck up people and get a life…..

  • Suz

    Dear AVT, a small mind is something that thinks humans can do WTF they want to themselves and anything else and suffer no repercussions. It’s cause and effect, put stuff in your body that doesn’t belong and the body reacts. I’m not saying I believe Lance to resort to a ‘by any means necessary’ ploy or any such crap. I DO believe he’s a great athlete. No one is perfect, though, and the cancers in his otherwise beautiful body make one wonder. I think maybe I am just sick of hearing people say, “Well, that just goes to show that you never can tell.” Why don’t you just say, “I don’t want to be responsible for the things I do to myself.”

  • Jim

    Does anyone really think this guy (or anyone) could consistently beat the crap out of all the best in the world while they were on drugs? He cheated for years guys! Admit it. They all do because no one on their teams (coaches, doctors, etc) is willing to be the grownup.

  • GuruOfChem

    So, Jim, Andrei Karellin didn’t lose an international wrestling match for more than 12 years because he was cheating? And all those Boston Celtics teams that won championships in 10 out of 11 years were just cheating too – must have been doing so if they were that much better than the competition, according to your argument. There has simply not been a premier athlete in Armstrong’s position; he was a world class cyclist before the cancer cost him so much muscle, and he was able to rebuild those muscles to ride a bicycle specifically. Who knows just how much of a competitive advantage that gave him? This also does not consider the fact that he was mentally tougher than his competitors, a fact readily apparent from watching him ride. Quit condemning him just because doing so fits your own jaded, cynical view of the world, and wait until there is actual, admissible, credible evidence before you paint him with the cheater’s brush.

  • Quis

    C’mon, many ways to hash this out again. Maybe the Doogie Howser effect was in play, with the cancer and all. There are other top athletes out there, they’re just not fortunate enough to get the chance or privelage to compete. If he did take these experimetal devices, they were technically nod banned , so it ain’t cheating , for all those that wanna play the technical standards game, unknown unknowns and the likes. Its even more testament to his greatness because he did not die from things that had a showing of failing to save the lives of others. And yes he was on drugs, he had CANCER!

  • Torgo

    I don’t see anything wrong with taking a drug that makes you perform better in sports!! We all take Viagra to make us perform better in sex!! W’s T F’n difference? Please try to evolve a little faster people!!!

  • jimBuckle

    …simply bulls***. No one hunted down Bob Beamon when he broke the long jump world record by like…2 ft….Unusual acts of athletic prowess are possible and should be celebrated, but, all you self-haters loathe yourselves so much that you feel no one else should be lifted up either. If you polled the haters political views I bet the haters would fall out Liberal in the 90%+ range…self-haters.

    [Moderator’s note: edited the cuss word.]

  • Bob

    “and he cheated”
    Oh, I thought he was still UNCONVICTED. As a matter of FACT Taylor, he has not even been tired. YOU might be considered a m****, but is the jury still out?

    Why not just enjoy the achievement?

    Speaking of drugs, please pass me that coke. Diet coke that is.

  • Ed

    So Suz, are you saying that his testicular cancer is proof that he cheated?

    I am sorry, but that is simply not true. Testicular cancer has nothing to do with PEDs. Like a lot of cancer, it is just bad luck. Some are genetically predisposed, or have some toxic exposure like tobacco for lung cancer. But many just had rotten luck. Go to a breast cancer walk, and you’ll see a lot of people with with the same bad luck.

    Some of the drugs we use in chemotherapy are PEDs, but those drugs are easy to find on existing blood tests, tests that have been around for years.

    Maybe he did cheat, I don’t know, but his cancer has nothing to do with PEDs.

    Incidentally, getting a hold of a drug in Phase III trials is very difficult. It is very tightly controlled, and it’s not like you can get it from a street corner. The only source is the manufacturer, who may be staking their financial future on the drug. They control it very tightly.

  • Torgo

    There’s NOTHING wrong with taking a drug that makes you do something BETTER!! If a drug makes you worse or makes you perform worse, only then it should be illegal!!! That’s a wacky crazy moronic law for SURE, that makes it illegal to take a drug that makes you better! If he did take it- it’s FINE! Just like marawanna is fine- THE LAW IS WRONG!

  • Torgo

    We all take drugs to make us perform better in sex! There’s nothing wrong with taking a drug to make you perform better in sports! What’s the difference! Either way- Lance is COOL!!! Would you take a drug that makes you perform better at work?!!! STUUUUPID LAW!!!

  • http://DiscoverMagazine Karen Cooper

    If a drug makes you better, and you consistently win, then it is only fair if EVERYONE competing gets the same advantage. It seems very likely that Armstrong had to be using something to continue winning year after year, ad nauseum. Plus, he seems to be ocd, and afraid of aging. Time for him to find a graceful way to STOP competing, like finding a “retirement career”, and allowing the fresh, new competitors to test their prowess on the road.

  • Darius2025

    Who gives a F***.

  • Mark

    Like some of the people here are saying that lance had to b doing drugs to win all those tdf,s turbot must mean that usain bolt must be taking drugs now to have smashed all the records he has at running and at the way he easily beats all his fellows runners,so god only knows the massive amount of illegal drugs he must be taking to make it look that easy,that when he’s finished he docent even look tired

  • BillyDelyon

    First they start with one drug, then by 2 paragraphs later, they’ve moved through to the 4th or 5th example/company…

    As Bill said in comment #1, they won’t give up until they’ve tried ever single avenue they can travel to attempt to stripe him of his 7 consecutive Tour De France titles…

    I watched all 7 of those tours, some on TV, some live in France/Italy/Spain, and I’ve also seen Greg LeMond (I saw much of the ’89 tour/win, the final stage still ranks up there in my top 5 live sports moments) and other great bike riders in their prime, but what I saw Lance do live and on TV, that was like no other pedal spinner I’d ever seen, the guy is a force to be reckoned with, an amazing athlete, its a shame the doping rumors have trailed him most of his career…


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