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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What does an abnormal erythropoietin (EPO) level indicate?

Abnormal erythropoietin levels suggest possible disease of the bone marrow or kidneys. Another possibility is abuse by an athlete to increase the red cell count for better athletic performance. The correct interpretation of an abnormal erythropoietin level depends on the particular clinical situation. Sometimes, the erythropoetin level may be inappropriately normal when it should be elevated (such as when there is an anemia), indicating a problem with the kidneys.

Can a person without a medical disease or condition have a high erythropoietin (EPO) level?

Yes. For example, erythropoietin has been misused as a performance-enhancing drug in athletes such as cyclists (in the Tour de France), long-distance runners, speed skaters, and Nordic (cross-country) skiers. When misused in such situations, erythropoietin is thought to be especially dangerous (perhaps becausedehydration due to vigorous exercise can further increase the thickness (viscosity) of the blood, raising the risk for heart attacks and strokes. Erythropoietin has been banned by the Tour de France, the Olympics, and other sports organizations.

Is erythropoietin (EPO) available as a prescribed medication?

Yes. Using recombinant DNA technology, erythropoietin has been synthetically produced for use as a treatment for persons with certain types of anemia. Erythropoietin can be used to correct anemia by stimulating red blood cell production in the bone marrow in these conditions. The medication is known as epoetin alfa (Epogen, Procrit) or as darbepoietin alfa (Arnesp). It can be given as an injection intravenously (into a vein) or subcutaneously (under the skin).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/19/2015

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