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Biotech Firm Amgen Sponsors Bike Race

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Biotech Firm Amgen Sponsors Bike Race

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Biotech Firm Amgen Sponsors Bike Race

Biotech Firm Amgen Sponsors Bike Race

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Charles Pelkey, news editor of VeloNews magazine, discusses the Biotech firm Amgen's sponsorship of the new Tour of California cycling race. Amgen makes synthetic versions of the hormone erythropoietin, which some cyclists have illegally used to boost the amount of oxygen in their blood.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Next February the inaugural Tour of California will kick off, a 750-mile-long bicycle race along the California coast. Yesterday organizers announced the title sponsor of the race, and that choice is raising some eyebrows. The sponsor is a big biotechnology company called Amgen. Amgen happens to make a drug that's been used by some cyclists to boost their performance through blood doping. Joining us to talk about this is Charles Pelkey, news editor of the cycling news VeloNews.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. CHARLES PELKEY (News Editor, VeloNews): Certainly.

BLOCK: And the drug that we're talking about, we should explain, the drug that Amgen makes, is a synthetic version of EPO, or erythropoietin. How is it abused by cyclists?

Mr. PELKEY: Well, the immediate effect of the drug is to raise the number of red blood cells in the system, which, of course, allows you to transport more oxygen to the muscles and increases your endurance. And, finally, they've been able to begin testing and try to control its use. But over the last decade, I'd say, the impact has been pretty significant.

BLOCK: Well, as we said, the choice of Amgen to be the title sponsor is becoming a bit controversial. And I wanted to run this criticism by you. This is from the World Anti-Doping Agency, which asked, `What kind of message does this send to athletes?' What kind of message does it send, do you think?

Mr. PELKEY: I'm not really sure about it. You know, I mean, it certainly raised eyebrows among our readers. We have a reputation for running reasonably elaborate April Fools' stories on our Web site, and we had three or four readers who wrote in thinking that our story was sort of an early version of that.

BLOCK: Oh, that it was just a hoax?

Mr. PELKEY: It was a hoax. I mean, a lot of people who had heard rumors of it were absolutely taken aback. And, I mean, it's certainly tantamount to seeing an AA meeting sponsored by Budweiser or something. It's been a big surprise to a lot of people involved in the sport.

BLOCK: Yeah, I was trying to think of an analogy. And I was wondering, you know, would it be like seeing the maker of andro, you know, the performance-enhancing supplement, with a banner in the outfield at Yankee Stadium or something?

Mr. PELKEY: It could be. But, I mean, they--yesterday at the press conference, when they were outlining the course and discussing its sponsorship, Amgen made a point of saying that the company wants to use the event to promote a healthy lifestyle, cycling being a good example of that, and then also to promote the appropriate use of their products. EPO, again, when properly used is used to treat the anemia caused by kidney failure, the anemia suffered by people who are undergoing chemotherapy. And it gives energy to those people whose red blood cell count is dangerously low, and it's a lifesaver in some cases.

BLOCK: Has Amgen sponsored other bicycle races before?

Mr. PELKEY: They've sponsored small events. They actually have a team in Northern California. The jerseys say--in fact, are resplendent with small red blood cells, which always makes it kind of a neat item for cyclists with a sense of humor.

BLOCK: I guess so. Now we--I guess the terms--you know, the dollar amount of this sponsorship has not been made public, but what do they get? How would the Amgen name be displayed, besides on jerseys?

Mr. PELKEY: Well, it's the title sponsor. It's now the Amgen Tour of California. One of the stages actually goes to Thousand Oaks, California, and goes through the campus of the company, which, of course, has prompted a few snickers as well about the feed zone and what might be in them as setbacks when the riders go through there. But, I mean, seriously it's a major sponsorship for a major event, and it bodes well for the long-term health of the event if the organizers and the sponsors can get over the hurdle of the raised eyebrows about what the company makes and how it's being used.

BLOCK: Charles Pelkey, thanks very much.

Mr. PELKEY: Certainly.

BLOCK: Charles Pelkey is news editor of the cycling magazine VeloNews. He spoke with us from Boulder, Colorado.

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