Readers had an interesting variety of responses to last week’s column on the potential for gene doping — genetic manipulation — as the next frontier in illicit athletic performance enhancement. One reaction was that the worry is premature:
Alex Shaver, Pittsburgh, PA: I've only read this article, what ... each of the last 3 Olympics? Every other year somebody has to pay token attention to the fact that the potential for gene modification may some day catch up with chemical modification. Wake me when we're flying in our hover cars.
Fair enough. I asked Professor Ed Edmonds of the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, an expert on Olympic legal issues, if we’re getting ahead of ourselves:
Professor Edmonds: No, for a few reasons: First, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has already committed $3 million (U.S. equivalent dollars) into research beginning in 2002. The WADA held a workshop in New York at the Banbury Center in 2002 and another workshop in December 2005 in Stockholm. WADA is carefully monitoring research and looking for ways to test and detect gene-doping. Detection, however, is difficult.
Second: World-class athletes are constantly looking for an edge. The athletes and their advisors are carefully monitoring gene research for victims of diseases like muscular dystrophy and anemia to see if advances in those areas will offer them opportunities to increase muscle mass or to increase hemoglobin production.
Third: Most gene testing to date has been done on animals such as the Sweeney work noted in the article. Quick adoption of certain gene techniques on humans could have significantly negative consequences.
Finally, the trial of German coach Thomas Springstein included mention of Repoxygen, a substance connected to gene therapy, underscoring the concerns in the international community for the potential use of gene doping in athletics.
Another reader suggested that nature, rather than regulation, might have the last word:
MarkO. Henderson, Newark, NJ: Producing any significant change in one part of the body — say muscle mass — does not produce a corresponding increase in a co-functioning part of the body —s ay the ligament supporting the muscle. That’s the major reason steroid users have so many complications (besides the side affects of the "dope” itself) including cramps, sprains, strains, pulls and tears. Gene doping will cause widespread chaos with the bodies of these idiots.
And a surprising number of readers felt that perhaps genetic engineering might present a new opportunity, rather than a threat, for sports in general:
Anthony Deo, Jamaica, New York: What's wrong with setting another class for these Gene-athletes? Boxing has long paid attention to the various naturally-provided body types. In my opinion this is man’s mental manipulation of the human body. It is force of will in action on the field of sports.
K. Erikson, Fredericksburg, VA: In auto racing, technological marvels are introduced every year to bring racing speeds in excess of 200 mph. Other auto components slowly trickle into the auto industry to make today's cars more fuel efficient and safer. Baseball players have elective surgery on their eyes (LASIK) and elbows to throw balls faster. But when it comes to genetic engineering that is considered taboo? Until we separate religious/ethical/moral issues away from technological advances, we will never be able to make people better, rid diseases, and reduce the burden of medical care on the ill and elderly.
Bob Copeman, Birmingham, England: At last a sensible article on gene therapy and how it might be used in sport. Hopefully, there is soon going to be a Research Centre for a European Super League for Soccer which will bring together a range of experts including those in proteomics to provide an "Assess and Assist" capability. They will answer the question: Is the subject deluding himself and his coaches because he does not have the genetic talent, physiology, and motivation to win at the highest level?
Tommy, Melbourne, Florida: Gene doping sounds good. It may trickle down to us fat, slow, short people that had fat, slow, short parents. Why should genetically lucky people have all the fun?
Finally, I suggested that it might be a totalitarian country that could first test gene doping, the way that the former East Germany embraced steroids — but one anonymous reader chided me:
In light of the controversies surrounding the alleged use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes such as Lance Armstrong and seemingly every superstar baseball player, it seems rather disingenuous to neglect America as a possible hotbed of 'genetic doping'. 'Perhaps one whose country was bent on winning at any cost' ... sounds to me like an attitude that has existed in the U.S. since its founding. Variations on this theme include Rafael Palmeiro, Tonya Harding, Lance Armstrong (if you believe his accusers), all doing whatever is required, legal or not, moral or not, to win. Amateur U.S. sports associations rarely take a 'let's do this for the sport' attitude, but rather adopt an attitude of patriotic fervor that likens the results to an affirmation of U.S. superiority over the rest of the world. If that kind of attitude — totalitarianism notwithstanding — continues, there's no doubt that the U.S. will be one of the leaders in genetic doping — if they aren't already.
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