Sarcoma Alliance Warns About the Dangers of Blood Doping

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Many cancer patients have received the ingredients used to boost the blood of athletes.

Suzie Siegel, Sarcoma Alliance board member

Suzie Siegel, Sarcoma Alliance board member

If you don't follow sports, you may know nothing about blood doping and EPO. If you're a cancer patient, however, there's a good chance that you've heard of Epogen, Aranesp or Procrit.

As the debate continues over cheating in professional sports, Sarcoma Alliance board member Suzie Siegel said today that more people should know the harms of blood doping.

"If you don't follow sports, you may know nothing about blood doping and EPO. If you're a cancer patient, however, there's a good chance that you've heard of Epogen, Aranesp or Procrit," says Siegel, who lives in Tampa. She got expensive Procrit shots while undergoing chemo for metastatic leiomyosarcoma in 2003.

EPO stands for erythropoietin, a hormone that regulates the production of red-blood cells. Erythropoiesis-stimulating agents, or ESAs, increase red-blood cells, which deliver more oxygen to muscles, increasing endurance, she says. These drugs are sold legally under the trade names of Epogen, Aranesp or Procrit.

They remain useful for various conditions, such as anemia in patients with kidney disease, says sarcoma specialist Gina D’Amato, M.D., a board member of the Sarcoma Alliance.

“We used to give it all the time. Its use expanded until studies found that continuing to give it once blood levels were normal can cause serious complications.”

The FDA black-boxed the drugs in November 2007, according to the FDA website. The information warns that they have “not been shown to improve quality of life, fatigue, or patient well-being.” Instead, the FDA said, they increase the risk of death, stroke, blood clots, heart attacks and the progression or recurrence of tumors.

The drugs “shortened overall survival and/or increased the risk of tumor progression or recurrence in clinical studies of patients with breast, non-small cell lung, head and neck, lymphoid, and cervical cancers,” according to the FDA.

The same is presumed to be true in sarcoma patients, says D’Amato, who sees patients at Georgia Cancer Specialists in Atlanta. Because of the risk, oncologists are warned to give the drugs only to patients with metastatic disease who cannot be cured by chemotherapy, not to those getting chemo in hopes of being cured.

“There’s a theory that sarcomas have erythropoietin growth-factor receptors,” and thus, it’s possible that an ESA could stimulate slow-growing tumors, she says. A triathlete, she says she would never dope, of course. “It’s a shame that there’s so much pressure on athletes in professional competitions.”

In endurance sports, "it's bad to push your hemoglobin higher for the tiny advantage it will give you," says Ellis J. Neufeld, M.D., Ph.D., associate chief of the division of Hematology/Oncology at Boston Children's Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. "It is clearly dangerous."

The Sarcoma Alliance strives to give accurate information to people affected by sarcoma. It connects people so that they can share knowledge and support, and it helps reimburse people who seek a second opinion from an expert. For more information, go to http://sarcomaalliance.org

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