Laboratory Investigation of Cobalt Regulation in Horses

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It has been proposed that cobalt (Co) can be used as a performance enhancing drug for endurance athletes. The basis for enhanced performance stems from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, when some institutions advocated the use of high doses of Co to increase red blood cell production in patients with anaemia associated with renal disease. With increased red cell production, Co was thought to provide an advantage to athletes in endurance sports where a higher red cell mass would result in improved oxygen carrying capacity. Further research using in vitro cell lines elucidated a mechanism by which divalent cations, such as Co, could reduce the rate of degradation of a protein capable of inducing erythropoietin production and thereby red blood cell production. Subsequently, some sporting bodies advised athletes of Co misuse investigation, and the international horse racing association introduced a threshold Co level. This thesis evolved after I was approached by a legal team to determine equine urinary Co concentrations. Given my experience investigating Co in patients with failed metal-on-metal prosthetic hips, it was immediately apparent that there were deficiencies in the approach being taken by the horse racing industry to manage Co misuse. With the backing of literature reviews and original research, this thesis concludes that there was scant evidence to support the hypothesis that Co can enhance the athletic performance of racing horses. The research identified the need to differentiate inorganic Co from vitamin B12 when testing urine to assess Co misuse. Using original research to evaluate the cumulative nature of Co, this thesis demonstrates that urinary Co is an ineffective and unreliable means of screening for Co abuse in horses.
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