Changes in immature reticulocytes aid the indirect detection of microdose recombinant erythropoietin use in males and females

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Purpose: We investigated whether immature reticulocyte fraction (IRF) and the immature reticulocytes to red blood cells ratio (IR/RBC) are sensitive and specific biomarkers for microdose recombinant human erythropoietin (rHuEPO) and whether the inclusion of reticulocyte percentage (RET%) and the algorithm "abnormal blood profile score (ABPS)" increased the athlete biological passport (ABP) sensitivity compared to hemoglobin concentration ([Hb]) and the OFF-hr score ([Hb]-60 × √RET%).

Methods: Forty-eight (♀ = 24, ♂ = 24) participants completed a 2-wk baseline period followed by a 4-wk intervention period with three weekly intravenous injections of 9 IU × kg bw-1 epoetin β (♀ = 12, ♂ = 12) or saline (0.9% NaCl, ♀ = 12, ♂ = 12) and a 10-d follow-up. Blood samples were collected weekly during baseline and intervention as well as 3, 5, and 10 d after treatment.

Results: The rHuEPO treatment increased [Hb] (time×treatment, P < 0.001), RET% (time×treatment, P < 0.001), IRF (time×treatment, P < 0.001) and IR/RBC (time×treatment, P < 0.001). IRF and IR/RBC were up to ~58% (P < 0.001) and ~ 141% (P < 0.001) higher compared to placebo, and calculated thresholds provided a peak sensitivity across timepoints of 58% and 54% with ~98% specificity, respectively. To achieve >99% specificity for IRF and IR/RBC, sensitivity was reduced to 46% and 50%, respectively. Across all timepoints, the addition of RET% and ABPS to the ABP increased sensitivity from 29% to 46%. Identification of true-positive outliers obtained via the ABP and IRF and IR/RBC increased sensitivity across all timepoints to 79%.

Conclusions: In summary, IRF, IR/RBC, RET% and ABPS are sensitive and specific biomarkers for microdose rHuEPO in both males and females and complement the ABP.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMedicine and Science in Sports and Exercise
Issue number9
Pages (from-to)1695-1705
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2023 by the American College of Sports Medicine.

    Research areas

  • Faculty of Science - Anti-doping, Blood manipulation, Erythropoietin, Microdosing

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