DRUG doctors at the heart of the doping scandal that derailed the Tour de France should be taken off the banned substances list.Epoetin, the synthetic form of a natural substance called erythropoietin, controls the production of red blood cells in the body that carry oxygen to tissues.
It is banned by the International Olympic Committee and the Union Cycliste Internationale.
Athletes' muscles need a lot of oxygen to perform well. Injecting epoetin is one way of increasing performance, particularly in an endurance competition.
France's 21-day cycling race was dubbed the ``Tour de Farce'' (The Joke Tour) when six cycling teams quit the competition after French police conducted a series of raids in search of banned substances, including epoetin.
Doctors, team officials and cyclists are awaiting further questioning.
Professor Joammes Marx and Peter Vergouwen, of University Hospital in Utrecht, argue that epoetin should not be considered a doping drug.
``It is a very good and safe medicine, but now the point is: should it be used by athletes?'' Marx said in a telephone interview.
``Athletes, in principle, should not use drugs but this one, I think, should be discussed by the International Olympic Committee again. I'm not sure it should be a forbidden drug.''
In a study published in The Lancet medicine journal, the doctors showed that competitors who take the drug cannot be reliably detected and that some athletes who have never used the drug have packed-cell volume of 0.5, the limit of normality.
The drug cannot be detected in the body. In general, doctors measure packed-cell volume, a measure of red-blood-cell concentrations.
The Union Cycliste Internationale set a cut-off of 0.5. Above that level epoetin is assumed to be used and the cyclist is banned.
Marx and Vergouwen analysed blood samples of 18 men and 28 women athletes and 134 men and 144 women in a control group over 16 months. Four men athletes and four controls exceeded the limit.
``All six would have been excluded from competition according to Union Cycliste Internationale rules despite their packed-cell volumes being part of normally distributed values,'' said Marx in the study.