COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- A drug that mimics EPO as a way to help patients with kidney problems is in the late stages of development, one in an long list of new pharmaceuticals that anti-doping authorities are monitoring as they struggle to keep sports clean.
The drug, called Hematide, is in Stage 3 development, meaning it could be on the market by 2012. Anti-doping authorities say there's a chance some version of the blood-boosting drug could already be available on the black market.
"It speaks to the length people will go to try to cheat," said Larry Bowers, the lead scientist at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "You get drugs with perfectly beneficial health purposes and it gets diverted for use by people who shouldn't be doing it."
Almost every drug on the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list, including human growth hormone and steroids, have legitimate medical purposes.
Hematide's arrival is the latest development in a long-running cat-and-mouse game between the drug police and the athletes who find ways to use drugs to improve their performance.
Cases involving track athletes Marion Jones, baseball players Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and an investigation into seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong have centered on whether they used human growth hormone, EPO or designer steroids, all of which have proven more difficult to detect than traditional steroids.
EPO (short for erythropoietin) is a hormone that boosts the body's production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen -- and more oxygen helps athletes perform better, particularly endurance athletes in sports such as cross-country skiing and cycling. In 1989, the Food and Drug Administration approved EPO for legitimate medical purposes, mainly to treat anemic conditions in patients with kidney diseases and cancer.
Before Hematide, the most significant development in the line of EPO products was CERA, a version of EPO that stays in the blood for longer periods of time. There was no test available for CERA at the Beijing Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee holds onto doping samples for eight years so it can analyze them later if new testing methods become available.
Using a new test in 2009 is how the IOC retroactively caught five Beijing Olympians for using CERA. This year, the IOC said it was retesting some samples from the 2006 Turin Olympics -- strong indicators of how patient anti-doping authorities are willing to be to catch cheaters.
One of the newer drugs on WADA's radar, Hematide essentially does the same thing as EPO -- helps produce more red blood cells -- but, much like CERA, it stays in the body longer so patients don't have to go through as many treatments.
Still, Hematide is not EPO, and so it must be detected using different methods than were used for the original blood booster. Anti-doping authorities are strategically vague when talking about whether a test is already in place for developing drugs, not wanting drug cheats to know what solutions have been found or perfected. At an anti-doping conference last year, WADA said it was studying a new method that would allow wider testing of EPO.
It's too early to tell how big a factor Hematide might be on the doping scene, though clearly, the effort to detect it is well underway more than a year before its expected arrival to the market.
"We work with the people involved with it. It's not like it came out of nowhere," WADA committee head Gary Wadler said. "We all follow the literature on what's being developed. Something like this does not surprise you at all."