Toolkit Resources


Blood Doping: Cheating, or Leveling the Playing Field? - STIRS Student Case Study

Adele J. Wolfson, PhD
Department of Chemistry, Wellesley College
Wellesley, Massachusetts

Abstract: The case presents evidence in the debate regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs, particularly erythropoietin (EPO), to achieve an advantage in sports. It describes the accomplishments of a particular cross-country skier with a rare genetic mutation leading to overproduction of red blood cells and, hence, enhanced ability to deliver oxygen to muscles.  This situation is contrasted with the scandals that have emerged in the world of cycling when it was revealed that Lance Armstrong and teammates used EPO to increase their own red blood cell count.  Using an essay by Malcolm Gladwell as the jumping-off point, we raise the question: is it wrong to apply science to level the playing field?  Alternatively: How is use of EPO different from using glasses to correct eyesight, or orthopedic surgery, or any number of other training techniques? The case takes students through the necessary background information on EPO action, its therapeutic uses and (what is assumed to be) its abuse in sports, as well as methods of detection. It provides an opportunity to introduce some basic biochemistry related to protein structure, signal transduction, and methods of detection. The case ends with an intimate (paired) debate and group recommendations for governing sports authorities. The case requires some knowledge of biology/biochemistry on the part of the instructor.

It is a dilemma/decision case, based on the categories from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. The case is based on actual studies and news stories.

Use in Courses:   The case study was designed for a first-year seminar on the topic of Blood. It assumes no background knowledge on the part of the students other than some basics of high school chemistry. Depending on the background and interests of the students and the amount of time you wish to devote to it, the case could be explored in greater depth for biology/biochemistry and/or statistics. It could also be used as a module in an advanced-level biology/biochemistry or statistics course, in which case the assignments would include the full articles from which the figures are drawn.

As noted, the case is meant for use in a FY seminar. It may also be modified for a writing-intensive course, with the embedded questions or final debate as in-depth writing assignments. At least some of the in-class and out-of-class assignments should be done as collaborative projects.

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Professor Wolfson was named an AAC&U STIRS Scholar in 2014 and developed this case for the STIRS program.