New weapon in the fight against blood doping
10.08.2007By Maria Suurballe
Unlike blood doping with another person’s blood, homologous transfusion, blood doping with an individual’s own blood, autologous transfusion, has always been very difficult to detect, because the doping method isn’t based on intake of any kind of synthetic drug or foreign cells. Now though, a new test method is very close to a breakthrough.
Together with Australian colleagues, Jakob Mørkeberg, a doctoral student at Bispebjerg Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, is in the midst of developing a precise test to detect whether athletes have illegally doped themselves with their own blood.
Jakob Mørkeberg and his scientist colleagues have been developing the test during the past year and their method uses a number of indirect measurements such as comparing different blood parameters longitudinally.
Four new methods under consideration
In developing a test that can detect autologous transfusion, the researchers are working on four different test methods examining: blood parameters, total haemoglobin, gene-expression and membrane proteins.
The test material for all the analyses comes from experiments made on twenty-four young and healthy test persons, of whom sixteen each had 1.5 litres of blood withdrawn. The remaining eight worked as a control group. The blood was either stored in a freezer or refrigerator and was re-infused after a certain period of storage when the test persons had regenerated most of the withdrawn blood.
This method increases the amount of haemoglobin in the blood, thus more oxygen is carried from the lungs to the muscles, which enables the athletes to improve their performance. During the test period the test persons had blood samples taken on the average of 20 different times.
If the research results in a usable test, the blood parameter method could be compared with the indirect test method (off-score) used for tracking the use of EPO. One of the aims is to set up a blood algorithm, based on changes in various blood parameters unique for autologous transfusion.
Another test aims to measure the total haemoglobin. With this method, athletes inhale a small amount of carbon monoxide before and after a competition. The odourless gas is able to tie itself more than 200 times better to the red blood cells than oxygen.
By measuring the percentage of carbon monoxide bound to the haemoglobin on different time points, the researchers are able to calculate the precise amount of total haemoglobin and thereby get an indication of whether an athlete has been manipulating with his own blood.
The method requires several tests carried out well in advance before the competition. The carbon monoxide is normally out of the body after 6-12 hours.
The third test method, gene-expression, examines whether some genes are up or down regulated after autologous blood transfusions.
The last method, which is still confidential, examines membrane proteins, looking at the changes in the red blood cells when stored compared to non-stored cells.
“The test’s sensors are calibrated to identify minute changes in athletes’ blood systems that can only occur through transfusions,” Mørkeberg tells Play the Game. “We’re on to something,” he said. “But I expect it will still require some work to reach our goal. We’ll know a lot more in three months when we report our results to WADA.”