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Erythropoietin

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Also known as: EPO
Formal name: Erythropoietin

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The Test Sample

What is being tested?

Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone produced primarily by the kidneys. It plays a key role in the production of red blood cells (RBCs), which carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. This test measures the amount of erythropoietin in the blood.

Erythropoietin is produced and released into the blood by the kidneys in response to low blood oxygen levels (hypoxemia). EPO is carried to the bone marrow, where it stimulates production of red blood cells. The hormone is active for a short period of time and then eliminated from the body in the urine.

The amount of erythropoietin released depends upon how low the oxygen level is and the ability of the kidneys to produce erythropoietin. Increased production and release of erythropoietin continues to occur until oxygen levels in the blood rise to normal or near normal concentrations, then production falls. The body uses this dynamic feedback system to help maintain sufficient oxygen levels and a relatively stable number of RBCs in the blood.

However, if a person's kidneys are damaged and do not produce sufficient erythropoietin, then too few RBCs are produced and the person typically becomes anemic. Similarly, if a person's bone marrow is unable to respond to the stimulation from EPO, then the person may become anemic. This can occur with some bone marrow disorders or with chronic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. (Read Anemia of Chronic Diseases to learn more.)

Individuals who have conditions that affect the amount of oxygen they breathe in, such as lung diseases, may produce more EPO to try to compensate for the low oxygen level. People who live at high altitudes may also have higher levels of EPO and so do chronic tobacco smokers.

If too much erythropoietin is produced, as occurs with some benign or malignant kidney tumors and with a variety of other cancers, too many RBCs may be produced (polycythemia or erythrocytosis). This can lead to an increase in the blood's thickness (viscosity) and sometimes to high blood pressure (hypertension), blood clots (thrombosis), heart attack, or stroke. Rarely, polycythemia is caused by a bone marrow disorder called polycythemia vera, not by increased erythropoietin.

How is the sample collected for testing?

A blood sample is obtained by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm.

NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.

Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.

Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?

No test preparation is needed.