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.