I like my cells red…

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Cleansing one’s soul in public may have great catharsis and timing is critical, especially if you are a professional cyclist and the Tour de France champion is in the midst of a hearing to decide if he used steroids. As Floyd Landis finishes his appeal of a positive drug test, two German cyclists admitted to taking eryrthropoetin (Epo) to enhance their performance in the mid 90s. While the average person may never need to consider growth hormone or anabolic steroids, Epo is an important medication used to stimulate the bone marrow to produce red blood cells.

Red blood cells have a molecule inside called hemoglobin that collects oxygen from the lung and delivers it to the body’s tissues to be used to produce energy. If a person becomes anemic, that is the number of red blood cells fall, then oxygen delivery falls and the body can’t function adequately. Clinically people become weak, short of breath, may tire easily and a variety of other symptoms associated with poor circulation.

The most common reason to be anemic is to bleed. This bleeding can be acute like throwing up blood from a bleeding ulcer in the stomach, or it can be subtle and hidden and not be found easily. Sometimes people can become anemic because of old age or chronic disease like kidney failure. And of course, people who have their bone marrow insulted with chemotherapy have plenty of reason to lack red blood cell production.

Epo is the drug that comes to the rescue. Synthetically made in the lab, it can be injected and stimulate the bone marrow to produce enough red blood cells to significantly better the quality of life of many patients.

So why would a healthy athlete want to use this drug? Imagine if you could boost the amount of oxygen delivered to your muscles. With that extra energy provided by more red cells, you could race harder, faster and farther. There are some downsides though. As you get more red cells, your blood gets thicker and more likely to sludge, especially if during training and competition you sweat and lose water, concentrating your blood even more. That thick blood can get stuck in small blood vessels and can cause stroke, heart attacks and a variety of other badness. There is always risk reward when it comes to cheating. But for the real world, Epo is another medical advance to improve the quality of life.

So, as these two cyclists come forward with their admissions, it is good to know that thy won’t be able to have influenced a new generation of athlete…except that Eric Zabel continues to compete and Rolf Aldag is the sporting director for a cycling team. Nothing like leading by example.

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