Athletes Fool Test of Banned Drug by Using Soap, Scientist Says
2007-10-29 00:24 (New York)
By Alex Duff
Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) -- A few grains of household soap
powder can destroy the banned drug EPO in an athlete's urine
sample, wrecking a test that cost $2 million to develop, said
Mario Thevis, an anti-doping researcher in Cologne, Germany.
Scientists made the discovery after a former Tour de France
cyclist said he was given an unidentified powder to sabotage
surprise tests, said Thevis, who works at the World Anti-Doping
Agency-accredited biochemistry unit of German Sports University.
``One or two tiny little granules of washing powder are all
that is needed,'' Thevis said in a telephone interview last week
Synthetic EPO, or erythropoietin, was developed to treat
anemia by increasing red blood-cell production. Athletes take it
illicitly to improve endurance. Authorities began checking
competitors for it at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
``Cheats appear to have found a way around the test with
backyard science,'' said Robin Parisotto, a researcher in
Canberra, Australia, who helped develop the test for the drug.
The International Olympic Committee and the Australian
government spent $2 million to develop the test, he said in a
telephone interview Oct. 26 from his home.
Thevis, one of the researchers in the study, said anti-
doping authorities may need to start checking for protease, a
class of enzymes that destroys EPO and is in soap powder,
dishwashing solution and contact-lens cleaner.
The body uses naturally occurring enzymes to break down
proteins, such as EPO.
The drug is sold as Aranesp by Amgen Inc. and Procrit by
Johnson & Johnson. They were among the world's top-20 selling
drugs last year, generating $7.3 billion between them.
There's no reference to protease on the World Anti-Doping
Agency's list of banned substances. Olivier Rabin, the agency's
science director, was unavailable to comment, spokesman Frederic
Donze said. IOC medical director Patrick Schamasch didn't
immediately respond to a phone message and e-mail seeking
In May, Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour de France winner, said
he took EPO for five years during his career. Cross-country
skiers Johann Muehlegg and Larissa Lazutina gave back their
Olympic gold medals at the 2002 Winter Games after testing
positive for EPO.
Jesus Manzano, a former Tour cyclist who left the sport in
2003, said athletes still use EPO while training because it
leaves the body quickly.
Manzano said in 2004 that he used EPO when he was competing.
He was given a red powder to use if anti-doping officials came
to his home for a surprise test. He said in an interview in
April at his home in Madrid that he didn't know what the powder
His former team, the now-defunct Liberty Seguros, has
denied wrongdoing and said Manzano acted independently.
Thevis said using soap powder would destroy all EPO in
urine, both synthetic and what is produced naturally by kidney
No EPO was found in 17 percent of 3,050 athletes' urine
samples examined between 2003 and 2006 by the Swiss anti-doping
laboratory in Lausanne, said Neil Robinson, who helped compile
the study published in this month's edition of medical journal
Clinica Chimica Acta.
``You have to be very careful when accusing anyone,''
Robinson said in a telephone interview last week from his lab in
Lausanne. ``You can have little EPO by drinking huge amounts of
water. It will also deteriorate if you're transporting a sample
a long distance, say, from Uganda.''
It also could be difficult to prove that laundry soap
hasn't come from an athlete's clothes, Michael Ashenden, an
Australian anti-doping researcher, said in an interview.
Robinson said the simplest solution to stop tampering is to
urge vigilance by sports officials who collect urine samples.
``Pay attention,'' he said. ``And make sure athletes wash
their hands first.''