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Erythropoietin (EPO) Print E-mail

Dr. Kennedy Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone produced by the kidneys which promotes the formation of red blood cells in the bone marrow. EPO is a glycoprotein (a protein with a sugar attached to it). Human EPO has a molecular weight of 34,000. The kidney cells that make EPO are specialized and are sensitive to low oxygen levels in the blood. These cells release EPO when the oxygen level is low in the kidney. EPO then stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red cells and thereby increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. EPO is the prime regulator of red blood cell production. Its major functions are to promote the differentiation and development of red blood cells and to initiate the production of hemoglobin, the molecule within red cells that transports oxygen. The measurement of EPO in the blood is useful in the study of bone marrow disorders and kidney disease. Normal levels of EPO are 0 to 19 mU/ml (milliunits per milliliter). Elevated levels of EPO can be seen in polycythemia, a disorder in which there is an excess of red blood cells. Lower than normal levels of EPO are seen in chronic renal failure. Using recombinant DNA technology, EPO has been synthetically produced for use in persons with certain types of anemia -- such as anemia due to kidney failure, anemia secondary to AZT treatment of AIDS , and anemia associated with cancer. EPO has been much misused as a performance-enhancing drug in endurance athletes including some cyclists (in the Tour de France), long-distance runners, speed skaters, and Nordic (cross-country) skiers. When misused in such situations, EPO is thought to be especially dangerous (perhaps because dehydration can further increase the viscosity of the blood, increasing the risk for heart attacks and strokes. EPO has been banned by the Tour de France, the Olympics, and other sports organizations.

EPO Testing

EPO test: A test of the hormone EPO (erythropoietin) in blood. The EPO level can indicate bone marrow disorders, kidney disease, or EPO abuse. Testing EPO blood levels is of value if:

  • Too little EPO might be responsible for too few red blood cells (such as in evaluating anemia).
  • Too much EPO might be causing too many red blood cells (polycythemia).
  • Too much EPO might be evidence for a kidney tumor.
  • Too much EPO in an athlete suggests EPO abuse.

The patient is usually asked to fast for 8-10 hours (overnight) and sometimes to lie quietly and relax for 20 or 30 minutes before the test. The test requires a routine sample of blood.



The information in this article is not meant to be medical advice.�Treatment for a medical condition should come at the recommendation of your personal physician.

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