In the realm of running performance, a concerning trend has surfaced, revealing a potentially insidious method for runners to gain an edge over their competitors.
Recent reports suggest that blood extracted from lugworms, commonly known as sandworms or marine worms, is being explored as a new method of blood doping and is becoming a major concern for anti-doping agencies.
Dr. Franck Zal, the founder of Hemarina, a French biotechnology company, has exploited the extraordinary oxygen-carrying abilities of lugworm hemoglobin to create what is described as a “universal blood substitute.”
This substitute is said to be able to carry 40 times more oxygen than conventional human hemoglobin, introducing a troubling element into the already contentious arena of blood doping.
Unlike traditional methods of blood doping, such as erythropoietin (EPO), lugworm hemoglobin has an immediate impact on the body when injected, offering runners a rapid but fleeting boost in oxygen levels.
Its short half-life and smaller size make it challenging to detect in routine blood tests—a feature that could potentially empower unscrupulous athletes seeking an unfair advantage.
Adeline Molina from the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD) acknowledges the deceptive appeal of lugworm hemoglobin with its evasive nature in standard tests. She spoke about the existing battle against doping practices, emphasizing the need to be on the lookout for this new method.
In the world of running, blood doping has been around for decades and poses significant ethical concerns.
Runners use blood doping as a means to increase the body’s oxygen-carrying abilities. This results in improved aerobic capacity, allowing athletes to sustain higher levels of effort for longer durations.
When the body can deliver more oxygen to working muscles, the onset of fatigue during running is delayed, enabling athletes to maintain a faster pace or endure longer training sessions and races.
Increased oxygen supply also facilitates the removal of metabolic byproducts, such as lactic acid, and supports the replenishment of glycogen stores in the muscles, allowing athletes to recover faster. As a result, doping athletes can complete more training, further improving performance.
VO2 max, or maximal oxygen consumption, is another key measure of aerobic fitness. Blood doping can lead to an increase in VO2 max, allowing athletes to use oxygen more efficiently during exercise and perform at higher intensities.
Lugworm hemoglobin is reportedly compatible with all blood types, does not elevate hematocrit levels, and does not induce high blood pressure, which may attract runners seeking shortcuts to success.
Its stability at room temperature, eliminating the need for freezing, adds a layer of convenience for those engaging in clandestine doping practices.
As discussions surrounding the illicit use of marine worm hemoglobin continue, the ethical and regulatory dimensions of its potential application in sports demand urgent attention.
The scientific community, in collaboration with anti-doping agencies, must deal with the challenge of curbing this new substance from leaking into the world of running.
The World Anti-Doping Agency and national federation anti-doping agencies have become aware of this new potential doping method and have begun to take steps to avoid it falling into the hands of athletes.
To date, there has yet to be any sanctions for athletes using lugworms.