Erythropoietin (EPO, The EPO Test)

  • Medical Author:
    Siamak N. Nabili, MD, MPH

    Dr. Nabili received his undergraduate degree from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), majoring in chemistry and biochemistry. He then completed his graduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His graduate training included a specialized fellowship in public health where his research focused on environmental health and health-care delivery and management.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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Blood Doping

Medical Author: Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Lance cheated. Deep in our hearts we knew it, but until the words came out of his mouth, there was a glimmer of hope that he still could be our hero. Now he has fallen, admitting that he blood doped, used steroids and erythropoietin (EPO), and exhibited disdain to those around him, both friend and foe. The problem, however, is that sports are always filled with cheating, and the public accepts some acts of dishonesty as part of the game. The distinction between what is ethically acceptable and what is not continues to be a blurred line.

Muscle cells are factories that take the raw materials, oxygen and glucose, and turn them into energy. Training increases the ability of the body to deliver oxygen to the cells and increases muscle size. More efficiency and more power yield better athletic performance. Increasing the number of red blood cells in the body increases the ability to deliver oxygen to tissues and that's where blood doping and EPO come in.

Erythropoietin (EPO) facts

  • Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone produced by the kidney.
  • Erythropoietin promotes the formation of red blood cells by the bone marrow.
  • The erythropoietin hormone level can be detected and measured in the blood (the EPO test).
  • Measurement of the blood erythropoietin level can be used to detect certain medical conditions.
  • Erythropoietin can be synthesized and used as a treatment of some forms of anemia.
  • Erythropoietin has been misused as a performance-enhancing drug by some athletes.

What is erythropoietin (EPO)?

Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone produced by the kidney that promotes the formation of red blood cells by the bone marrow.

The kidney cells that make erythropoietin are sensitive to low oxygen levels in the blood that travels through the kidney. These cells make and release erythropoietin when the oxygen level is too low. A low oxygen level may indicate a diminished number of red blood cells (anemia), or hemoglobin molecules that carry oxygen through the body.

Chemically, what is erythropoietin (EPO)?

Erythropoietin is a protein with an attached sugar (a glycoprotein). It is one of a number of similar glycoproteins that serve as stimulants for the growth of specific types of blood cells in the bone marrow.

What exactly does erythropoietin (EPO) do?

Erythropoietin stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. The resulting rise in red cells increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.

As the prime regulator of red cell production, erythropoietin's major functions are to:

  1. Promote the development of red blood cells.
  2. Initiate the synthesis of hemoglobin, the molecule within red blood cells that transports oxygen.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/19/2015

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