Erythropoietin, also called EPO, is a type of protein called a glycoprotein that is formed mainly in the kidneys to stimulate the production of red blood cells.
The erythropoietin (EPO) test is used to determine if hormonal secretion is causing changes in the red blood cells. The test has great value in evaluating low hemoglobin (anemia), and another disorder called polycythemia, in which unusually large numbers of red blood cells are found in the blood. The EPO test is also used to identify kidney tumors and to evaluate abuse by athletes who believe commercially prepared erythropoietin enhances performance.
Not every laboratory is equipped to evaluate EPO, so the reference laboratory (a large commercial lab that does tests for hospitals not equipped to do them) performing the test may require as many as four days to complete the analysis. It should also be noted that EPO values increase in pregnancy, in which significantly higher levels are found before the twenty-fourth week.
Erythropoietin is produced primarily in the kidneys but interacts with other factors in the bone marrow to increase red cell production. EPO is unique among the blood cell growth factors, because it is the only one that behaves like a hormone.
Erythropoietin acts as the principal regulator in the production of red blood cells (erythrocytes) by controlling the number, the kinds, and the survival of the cells. Because of this ability, it is being investigated for use in cancer patients to prevent anemia (hemoglobin concentration in the blood is lower than normal), or to treat anemia that has been induced by chemotherapy and bone marrow transplantation (BMT).
The correction of anemia can result in reduced transfusion requirements, so the erythropoietin test is used to diagnose anemia, including the anemia of end-stage renal disease. Erythropoietin determination is also valuable in diagnosing a condition known as polycythemia, when increased numbers of red blood cells occur. Levels of erythropoietin are extremely low in polycythemia vera but are normal or high in secondary polycythemia. It happens rarely, but cysts in the liver or kidneys, as well as tumors in the kidneys or brain, can also produce erythropoietin. Patients with these conditions can have high levels of erythropoietin and may develop secondary polycythemia.
Some athletes use EPO to enhance performance, as the increased red cell volume adds more oxygen-carrying capacity to the blood. Adverse reactions to this practice can include clotting abnormalities, headache, seizures, high blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and rash.
The EPO test requires a blood sample. The patient is to fast with nothing to eat or drink for at least eight hours before the test. It is also suggested that the patient lie down for 30 minutes before the test.
Risks for this test are minimal, but may include slight bleeding from the blood-drawing site, fainting or feeling lightheaded after venipuncture, and hematoma (blood accumulating under the puncture site).
Reference values vary from laboratory to laboratory, but a general normal range is 11–48 mU/ml (milliunits per milliliter).
Cahill, Mathew. Handbook of Diagnostic Tests. Springhouse, PA: Springhouse Corporation, 1995.
Jacobs, David S., et al. Laboratory Test Handbook. 4th ed. New York: Lexi-Comp Inc., 1996.
Pagana, Kathleen Deska. Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests. St. Louis: Mosby, Inc., 1998.
Janis O. Flores
Anemia—A condition in which the hemoglobin concentration in the blood is below normal.
Polycythemia vera—A condition characterized by an unusually large number of red blood cells in the blood due to increased production by the bone marrow. Symptoms include headaches, blurred vision, high blood pressure, dizziness, and night sweats.
Secondary polycythemia—Secondary polycythemia occurs when the excess of red blood cells is caused by a condition other than polycythemia vera. For example, when low levels of oxygen in the blood stimulate the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells, as in chronic lung disease.