11/01/2001 1:00AM

Test able to detect blood-doping


A racing laboratory in New South Wales, Australia, announced this week that it had developed a test to detect erythropoietin, a powerful blood-doping agent known as epogen or EPO that is rumored to be in use in Thoroughbred racing worldwide, including the United States.

Developing a test to catch EPO users has been a priority for racing labs around the world in the past several years, largely because of widespread blood-doping scandals in cycling and other endurance-based athletic events, such as cross-country skiing and rowing. When injected into the bloodstream, EPO is thought to increase a horse's endurance by stimulating the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in the spleen.

The test developed by the Australian lab would detect antibodies produced by a horse's immune system to combat a human form of EPO, according to a veterinarian of the New South Wales Thoroughbred Racing Board, Dr. Craig Suann. Most racing regulators believe that EPO abusers are using a human form of EPO because it is readily available to treat anemia.

"This test is a major breakthrough both for the integrity of racing and for the welfare of the horse," said Tony Hartnell, the chairman of the Australian racing board.

Jim Gallagher, the executive director of a U.S. task force set up by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to study drug testing, said Thursday that his staff contacted the Australian scientists on Wednesday night for information on the new test. Last year, the task force and other racing groups hired a Rutgers scientist, Dr. Kenneth McKeever, to develop a similar test to detect EPO, but McKeever so far has been unsuccessful.

"There's never been a definitive test, and this looks like the one we've been looking for," Gallagher said.

Despite the rumors about its use in the United States, regulators have yet to charge a single trainer with administering EPO, leading some critics to contend that rumors surrounding abuse of the drug have been cooked up by overzealous critics.

EPO detection in human athletes relies on establishing a baseline of red blood cell levels in the blood and then testing athletes periodically to see if those levels have risen past naturally occurring thresholds. Those tests have been attacked by critics as failing to account for extraordinary circumstances that could lead to elevated red blood cell levels, such as diet and exercise.

A horse's immune system interprets an injection of a human dose of EPO as an invader, so it produces antibodies. Those antibodies are present in the circulatory system as a sort of marker that can be identified through testing.

Currently, states use a combination of tests on both blood and urine to look for drugs. Gallagher said he did not know what form the new EPO test would take.