Anti-Doping Scientists Have Jobs Cut Out For Them

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Cyclist Floyd Landis sent the sports world buzzing last week with his admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs and his accusations that other top-flight cyclists did the same. But while the attention is focus on WHO engaged in doping, investigators are focusing on Landis' description of HOW they did it.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host;

And I'm Michele Norris.

Now, the fallout from Floyd Landis' doping bombshell. In a series of emails last week, the American bicycle racer admitted to years of banned drug use. He also accused others, including Lance Armstrong, of doing the same. Armstrong has strongly denied using drugs.

Well, that revelation from Landis set off renewed calls for investigations and lots of discussions about who may have doped. But in addition to the who, the how of the story is also critical.

As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, Landis has given veteran anti-doping scientists a glimpse of what they're up against.

TOM GOLDMAN: Don Catlin is a man most comfortable using the measured language of science, so it's notable that this veteran of more than 25 years as a drug tester, researcher, educator uses the word shock when talking about the Floyd Landis emails.

Dr. DON CATLIN (President and CEO, Anti-Doping Research, Inc.): If people were to sit down and actually figure out what he's saying and what he's doing, they'd be amazed. They couldn't believe what athletes are doing.

GOLDMAN: If Landis' how-to is to be believed - and Catlin says the basic facts and story are true - doping at competitions essentially was a full-time job for athletes. They were testing their blood throughout the day, regularly storing their own blood and later putting it back into their bodies, thereby boosting their performance, thanks to having more oxygen-carrying red cells.

They were using the banned drug EPO and masking it with different techniques. And, says Landis, they were being tipped off when drug testers were coming to take samples. All of this at the Tour de France, cycling's mega event, which prompts another non-science word by a science guy - brazen.

Dr. CATLIN: I still would have thought that no athlete was going to risk taking EPO literally under nose of the world's media; the French police are obviously involved during Tour de Frances.

GOLDMAN: Mike Ashenden is a leading anti-doping researcher from Australia. Ashenden and Catlin have been proponents of a highly touted anti-doping program called the biological passport, and they have both cringed over the past week, reading how Floyd Landis - and allegedly, others - found a way to beat it. Don Catlin.

Dr. CATLIN: It's taken a hit.

GOLDMAN: The bio-passport offers a long-term blood profile for each athlete. It's monitored for fluctuations; a noticeable spike or dip in the percentage of young red blood cells, for instance, implies something is amiss - perhaps doping.

The key, then, for the doping athlete is to keep the blood percentages relatively constant - not too high, not too low. According to Landis' emails, athletes were transfusing blood, which lowers their percentage of young red blood cells, and then using micro doses of EPO to boost the percentage back up and balance things out. They'd get the benefit from the transfusion without having it register on the passport.

Mike Ashenden knew about this practice. He proved it in a study over the past year, in which he gave subjects micro doses of EPO and it didn't significantly alter their blood profiles.

Dr. MICHAEL ASHENDEN (Physiologist, Australian Institute of Sport): What we did was treat our subjects constantly for that three-month period, and I hadn't contemplated that a cyclist would be able to do that constant treatment. But based on Floyd's account, that's what they were doing.

GOLDMAN: Ashenden and Don Catlin say the bio-passport program still is viable, but it needs some tweaks. Asked if he thinks anti-doping authorities will digest the Landis info and make adjustments by this year's Tour de France - a little over a month away - Mike Ashenden says, I would hope so.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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