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.
After years of denial, Floyd Landis–the cyclist who was stripped of his winning title to the 2006 Tour de France after failing a drug test–admitted last week that he did take performance enhancing drugs. And his confession is causing a stir, partly because he also implicated former teammate Lance Armstrong, seven-time-winner of the Tour de France (Armstrong denies the accusation), and partly because of the particular drugs he fessed up to taking:
Mr. Landis said in [several emails to cycling officials] that during his career, he and other American riders learned how to conduct blood transfusions, take the synthetic blood booster Erythropoietin, or EPO, and use steroids. All these practices are banned in cycling. Mr. Landis said he started using testosterone patches, then progressed to blood transfusions, EPO, and a liquid steroid taken orally. [Wall Street Journal]
EPO shook the cycling community in the 1990s, when police raids during the 1998 Tour de France (dubbed the “Tour de Dopage“) found that several riders were using EPO. It looks like the drug, believed to be thwarted by drug tests, has returned.