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Science of EPO Drug Testing
When French scientists developed a test for the banned blood booster EPO in 2000, it was hailed as a revolution, since the authorities were for the first time able to detect a potent performance enhancer that had been abused with impunity in sports like cycling and distance running for nearly a decade. But last month when the same scientists, using this test, detected EPO, or erythropoietin, in Lance Armstrong's frozen urine from the 1999 Tour de France, the revelation threw the credibility of both the champion cyclist and the test itself into question. The ensuing storm has pitted the reputation of America's golden sports hero against one of France's most eminent government scientists, Dr. Jacques de Ceaurriz, the director of the French national anti-doping lab. If the test positively shows that Armstrong had synthetic EPO in his system, he undoubtedly has questions to answer. If not, the test results are clearly wrong or at best ambiguous. "There's not much of a middle ground, is there?" said Dick Pound, the president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, who added that it appeared that the "tests show there was EPO there" and that the EPO test is "as close to 100 percent reliable as you could get." But the test, now widely used and even patented in part by the French laboratory, has limitations and ambiguities, a number of prominent scientists said, largely because injected EPO is a near carbon copy of a molecule that naturally appears in the body. Even as the World Anti-Doping Agency, known as WADA, has adopted and repeatedly defended the French test, it has been funding projects to improve it. "This is not like a pregnancy test, where you are either pregnant or you're not," said Dr. Nicolle Packer, executive vice president of Proteome Systems in Sydney, which has one of the research grants. "It has to be prepared carefully and interpreted by an expert, who can mostly call it, I believe," she said in a tele phone interview.

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