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Can someone explain this? Sure, I’m happy that Stefan Schumacher and Leonardo Piepoli have been caught using EPO, but can anyone explain why it took three months for these results to show up?
It only took a few days to nail Riccardo Riccò for the same infraction. Why did it take so long this time around?
Did it really take the lab three months to test those samples?
Redwood City, California
We’ve received several letters asking questions along the same lines. First off, the test used to catch Riccardo Riccò was a urine test. Schumacher and Piepoli were caught because their urine tests produced “inconclusive” results, so testers then took a close look at their blood samples. Those blood tests were only started a couple of weeks ago and the results were released this week.
The riders were each found to have used the new generation of EPO, something known as a Continuous erythropoietin receptor activator (CERA), marketed under the trademark of “Micera.” It was assumed to be undetectable. Happily, that turned out not to be the case.
It’s often difficult to learn of the specific methods applied in such analysis, because the tests are not generally used in the wider field of medicine. One notable exception was the homologous blood-doping test used to catch Tyler Hamilton and Alexander Vinokourov, which relied on flow cytometry, a well-established method of sub-grouping blood types. What made the method controversial was its use as a doping detection technique.
For the most part, however, there is little public discussion of the methods used and generally limited peer review of the procedures. That, say critics, is also part of the system’s weakness. Anti-doping authorities have countered that testing methods are reviewed but add that it would be counter-productive to alert cheaters as to how their samples are being tested, since they could quite possibly develop the means by which the tests could then be circumvented.
Still there is some public information available. Some of it, though, can be misleading. For example, there was initially confusion surrounding the tests used to detect Micera, following reports that the new head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, John Fahey, said that the pharmaceutical giant F. Hoffman-La Roche had placed a marker in the drug in advance of production and testing.
The company, however, said that while it had cooperated with WADA researchers, it had not altered CERA in order to make its detection easier. Indeed, the company said such a marker would not even be necessary.
“The fact is that Micera is an innovative molecule that is both functionally and structurally different and it can be differentiated in samples from both naturally occurring erythropoietin and from all other traditional ESA products,” the company noted in its statement. “Roche has provided samples of Mircera and assay reagents to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to help ensure that WADA laboratories will be able to carry out reliable anti-doping testing.”
The established EPO urine test relies on the fact that the metabolites of natural erythropoietin and its pharmaceutical equivalent (Epogen) produce distinctly different profiles when subject to a procedure known as isoelectricfocusing analysis. The big drawback of the test is that the isoforms of exogenous EPO remain detectable only for about two to three days. That’s a big stumbling block when it comes to detecting a drug that works for weeks. Some research suggests that the isoforms of CERA can last for around six days. Either way, the distinction between the isoforms of natural and exogenous erythropoietin begins to fade and that could be why Schumacher and Piepoli produced “inconclusive” results, while Riccò’s sample quickly came back positive. Apparently, Riccò’s dosage had been more recent than the other two.
Recent developments in blood testing have improved the ability of testers to distinguish exogenous EPO in plasma samples. That method, coupled with the new “biological passport” requirement that individual riders provide a regularly updated blood profile, has allowed testers to isolate traces of exogenous EPO and, now, CERA.
The Tour de France noted that there were blood samples from 15 riders, whose urine tests were inconclusive, that were to be analyzed for indications of CERA use. Thus far, we’ve seen the results of just two.
Just this Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee announced that it would apply the same method to samples from this summer’s games in Beijing. The IOC collected more than 1000 blood samples and it remains to be seen just how many of them will be subject to the extra scrutiny.
“The Explainer” will be a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and home town.