Detecting EPO in Beijing: a high-precision "dream team"

(dpa) - The system to detect erythropoietin (EPO) is probably one of the most sophisticated and delicate operations at the Beijing Olympics, a major challenge in the hands of a "dream team" of scientists.

Precision is crucial, because athletes' honour is at stake, and this leads the scientists involved to take their time. It can even lead the samples to be sent on to Paris, as was the case with Spanish cyclist Maribel Moreno, singled out Monday as the first positive doping test at the Games.

"The testing process for EPO takes a while, it is not immediate," an international expert working at the heart of testing for doping doping in Beijing told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

The laboratory, flagship of China's new anti-doping agency Chinada, is a multinational effort, where experts like the Canadian Christiane Ayotte - director of the prestigious Montreal laboratory - or Don Catlin of the US - responsible for the facility in Los Angeles and the man who discovered the method to detect the designer drug THG used by Marion Jones - run into each other every day.

Anti-doping laboratories are a legacy that the Olympic Games leave for host countries. Thanks to Montreal 1976 and Los Angeles 1984, those two cities are world references in testing, and so is the Barcelona lab under Jordi Segura, a Spaniard who is also part of the Beijing "dream team."

Moreno underwent a urine test on July 31, shortly after she arrived in Beijing. The first analysis of the sample was positive, enough to allow the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to prevent her from competing.

However, in order to get the result of the test that arrived late Sunday from the Chatenay-Malabry laboratory in Paris, "up to 72 hours" may be required.

"The sample, in this case, was very diluted. We had to be particularly careful," the source told dpa.

Unlike anabolic steroids and stimulants, on which doping tests draw clear conclusions in the shape of concrete figures, EPO is a foggy area: graphic results are subject to interpretation, they are not objective. This means that, before there is a positive result, at least three laboratory heads have to be involved and deliver their expert knowledge on the matter.

The Brazilian Eduardo De Rose, president of the medical commission at the Pan-American Sports Organization (PASO) and an expert on EPO, told dpa that "it is not true that the second or third generations of the substance" are harder to detect.

"What the different generations of EPO allow is a greater ease for kidney patients," De Rose explained. "The oldest (form of EPO) required daily applications, for NESP (Novel Erythropoiesis Stimulating Protein) they are weekly, and for the new one they are practically monthly."

This improves life for kidney sufferers, but it also facilitates consumption on the part of sportsmen seeking to improve their performance.

The traditional "recombinant EPO" which became known around the world in the late 1990s jumped to NESP or darbepoetin, which German- born Spanish skier Johann Muehlegg made known when he tested positive in Salt Lake City 2002.

And now there is the Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator (CERA), the third generation, which had its world premiere last month at the Tour de France, with the case involving Italian Riccardo Ricco.

De Rose leads a group of 15 experts that visit the different sites of competition at the Beijing Olympics everyday. From a hotel in central Beijing, the Brazilian coordinates things for tests to be done in a timely fashion, for nothing to go wrong and for the 4,500 tests expected to be done at the 2008 Olympics to be carried out with ease.

In the meantime, the anti-doping lab in Beijing receives all the samples, which can be tested at any time since there are three shifts covering 24 hours a day.

And there will be a lot of work, because IOC president Jacques Rogge has already anticipated that he expects "between 30 and 40" positive tests in the Games.

This means that Moreno's is just the beginning. The game of doping is only getting started.

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