Genetic engineering has come far enough that athletes looking for an unsanctioned edge may soon make genetic doping their top choice. Genetic doping involves using gene therapy techniques to enhance athletic performance. In some future Olympics training camp, an athlete could be injected with a virus that delivers a gene for building stronger joints.
Though gene therapy is still experimental, it has created enough buzz that athletes and coaches chase researchers and scientists race to develop a test that could be used on Olympic athletes. As the New York Times noted, gene therapy does not create super-athletes. Gene doping could improve performance by fractions of a second, but this is enough to decide who wins Olympic gold.
Gene Doping: The Steroid Of The Future
The pursuit of gold, both medals and contracts, has long pushed some athletes to try steroids and other substances to win the edge. Cyclists and runners dope with the hormone erythropoietin (EPO) in order to stimulate production of red blood cells, a technique that has replaced the earlier practice of blood transfusions. In 2006, EPO doping escalated when German coach Thomas Springstein was caught going after the gene therapy drug Repoxygen before the Winter Olympics.
Developed to treat anemia, the experimental drug uses a virus to deliver a gene for EPO. Springstein already had been giving his unsuspecting athletes performance-enhancing drugs. Springstein’s behavior may be the new future, as according to the New York Times, sports teams and athletes bombard researchers with requests for gene therapy. Scientists think that some people are trying to duplicate formulas such as Repoxygen’s, which is patented and publicly available. Websites have sprung up purporting to sell genetic doping substances, and sales are strong even though substances tested have been found to be synthetic EPO.
The Gold Rush On Research
In the late ‘90s, H. Lee Sweeney’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania was working on treatments for muscle atrophy and created super mice that caught the athletic world’s attention. These “Schwarzenegger mice” were 30% stronger and far more muscular than regular mice and had been injected with an extra gene that produces a growth-stimulating protein called IGF-1. Although human trials are still years away, athletes have been volunteering themselves as test subjects since the news broke. More recently, Harvard Medical School researcher Chris Evans has begun human trials involving a gene found to prevent and treat osteoarthritis. The gene therapy eventually could create stronger joints in athletes, though Evans told the New York Times that the research emphasis is on disease treatment.
Detecting Super Genes At The Olympics
Nobody is sure whether Olympic athletes have managed to try gene therapy. In a preemptive strike, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned genetic doping in 2003 and has been funding research to develop a reliable test. According to an AFP story on Yahoo.com, a gene-doping test was not available in time to test athletes who competed in the London 2012 Olympics. The only test currently available involves analyzing a muscle tissue biopsy. To test today’s Olympic athletes, biopsies would have to be taken from every muscle, an invasive and time-consuming procedure that is unlikely to be implemented.
New rules allow athletes’ blood and urine samples to be kept for up to eight years, so they could still be subject to future genetic dna testing. Bioethicist Andy Miah told AFP, “In some years, a test may show that gene doping took place and (we) will have to confront the possibility of retracting medals.” Gene therapy is risky and can cause severe side effects including massive organ failure and death. Theodore Friedman, director of the University of California’s gene therapy program, told AFP that in human trials, several patients have died and many more have become seriously ill. However, these caveats are not likely to cool the race for gene-doping gold or the court dna testing to detect it.