Haemoglobin extracted from lugworms could be a new doping substance for sports performance enhancement. Here is what we know.
Illegal performance-enhancing drugs and medical procedures are an issue in professional sport and cycling is no different. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. It is a sad reality but hopefully, an issue that is becoming smaller and smaller as doping control methods become more rigorous and the consequences of being caught (which are the biggest deterrents to doping) more severe.
Cover image Credit: Karolina Grabowska / Pexels
A new method of performance enhancement has arisen recently and has garnered a fair bit of attention in the press and that is the use of extracellular haemoglobin from certain Arenicola marina lugworms (also known as sandworms, or to South African fisherman ‘bloodworms’), to increase oxygen transport in the blood of an athlete. L’Équipe, a French sports news site recently published an investigation into this doping method and its potential usage in the pro peloton that has kickstarted a lot of conversation around the topic. Here is the low down.
According to L’équipe, the incredible oxygen-transporting properties of the Lugworm’s Haemoglobin were discovered by Dr Franck Zal, a French marine biologist. Dr. Zal started the HEMARINA company with the goal of processing lugworm Haemoglobin for use in the medical world, specifically in the organ transplantation process where a lack of oxygen to the organ can put the success of a transport at risk.
What makes the Lugworm’s Haemoglobin special for doping
According to HEMARINA “the extracellular haemoglobin secreted by the lugworm, 250 times smaller than the human haemoglobin, is able to carry 40 times more oxygen”. The oxygen transporting molecules from these particular invertebrates can be stored at room temperature, are compatible with all blood types, and don’t cause elevated hematocrit levels or blood pressure. This is all great news for the medical world but also caught the ears of some professional athletes looking for a performance boost in their sport of choice.
Interest from professional athletes
Dr Zal told L’équipe that in 2020 a “well-known cyclist whose team participates in the Tour de France, contacted me because he wanted the product” and that he also “learned of its possible administration to racehorses.” When contacted by athletes looking to get their hands on this potential performance booster, he reached out to the French Office For Environmental and Public Health for guidance and left the matter in their hands, ceasing contact with the other curious parties.
Detecting the Lugworm Haemoglobin in athletes
Being able to accurately detect the substance in an athlete through routine doping tests is key to the control of doping in sport. Thankfully, the Lugworm Haemoglobin is detectable by current doping test methods but the window for detection is small. A recent publication in the Wiley Analytical Science Journals by Katja Walpurgis et al. (which can be read here) concluded that “a detection window of 4–8 hours should be sufficient to uncover doping with lugworm Hb”. They did note that the results of the study (performed on rats) would still need to be confirmed with human subjects (following clinical approval).
Monitoring these sorts of new doping methods is a tricky business. To shed some more light on the situation, we reached out to Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) specialist from the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS), Dr. Elske Schabort, to learn more about how athletes may look to use this substance and how the doping control teams will adapt to test for it.
WILD AIR: What are the unique challenges in monitoring and testing for Lugworm Haemoglobin in an athlete’s blood?
Dr Schabort: “At this stage, limited or no research is available on the specific topic of doping with the lugworm (more is known about its use and benefit in organ transplantation). Results and accurate data are not available to determine how the haemoglobin of the lugworm would affect an athlete, in the context of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) which is the program and method of collecting and gathering athlete data, which could potentially be able to indicate how use of this form of haemoglobin would affect an athlete’s haematological parameters, as well as whether haematological changes, if any, translate to an improvement in performance.
However, the short half-life needs to be taken into consideration, as it may have a limited effect on the ABP, which would then depend on the timing of a drug test in relation to the use of the product.
The challenge is that the necessary research is required, but this would need to take into account potential side effects/negative health concerns, which therefore becomes an ethical issue, considering the long-term side effects of use of this product in humans, are not known. Haemoglobin imbalances could have potentially toxic effects.”
WILD AIR: In your knowledge of the potential benefits of this doping mechanism, how would athletes likely use this method for performance gains?
Dr Schabort: Currently, the benefit, if any, of this “doping mechanism” has not been researched or proven or shown. Note that it seems all claims and statements are only coming from the HEMARINA company. Considering the short half-life, the benefit, IF ANY, may be more through use by athletes when competing In-Competition, however Out-of-Competition use could allow for a higher training load that may be reached, which translates to long-term gains. Again, there is no evidence or research to base the statements on, regarding the effectiveness of the product in sport.
WILD AIR: How does SAIDS evolve and innovate to stay at the cutting edge of doping control and ensure that South African sport is kept drug free?
Dr Schabort: There are ongoing research projects, as well as further development of the ABP which are included in the International Standards that anti-doping agencies are required to implement in their testing programs. Furthermore, there are ongoing workshops, symposiums, collaboration with International agencies and the use of Intelligence and Investigations to improve our testing programmes so that we keep our testing plans variable. In addition, new and more sensitive laboratory analysis techniques are developed, as well as improvements/additions to the Athlete Biological Passport – as an example two new modules were incorporated into the ABP in 2023 viz., the Endocrine Module and new markers of the Steroidal Module measured in blood.
What we can learn from this
Dr Schabort does point out that although there has been interest from some athletes in testing the substance for performance enhancements, there is not yet evidence of its performance-enhancing ability in humans, just in the preservation of organs in the transplanting process. As of yet, there have been no confirmed cases of athletes using the Lugworm Haemoglobin in sport and we will have to see if any arise to confirm the effectiveness of its use as a performance enhancer.
If we have learned anything from the recent news on this potential doping mechanism it is that the need to control and bring justice to the abuse of substances for performance enhancement in professional sport is very much still present. Thankfully organisations such as World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) and SAIDS are doing their very best to make sure that the professional sporting world is kept free from such practices. We’ll do our best to bring relevant news on future doping cases and insights to light with the intention of keeping you informed and athletes accountable.