Image: Stem cells
Andre Penner  /  AP file
The jury is still out on stem cells, writes columnist Mike Celizic.
By
NBCSports.com contributor
updated 7/28/2008 11:25:43 PM ET 2008-07-29T03:25:43
OPINION

I’m beginning to think that the people who run the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and Bud Selig are somehow related. There’s no other way to explain the expressions of shock coming from that bastion against chemical cheating at news that a German television network easily found a doctor willing to deliver vials of stem cells to a reporter posing as an American swimming coach.

Much was made of the fact the doctor was Chinese and worked in a hospital in that country. The implication is that the Olympic host country is the cutting edge of devising new ways to cheat without getting caught.

That’s not only unfair, it’s incredibly naïve. In the first place, it’s not clear that you can give somebody a vial of stem cells and a needle and expect anything to happen. In the second, you can find doctors and researchers in many countries who would be willing to sell you anything, whether it works or not. Picking on China on the eve of the Olympics is just larding big scoops of guilt by association on the Chinese for no good reason. In the third, WADA’s known that playing with DNA has been the next frontier in athletic enhancement for several years. Back in 2005, the organization even had a conference on it. So if it’s shocked to find gambling going on at Rick’s, it slept through its own conference.

There’s no question that fiddling with genes is the new frontier in the eternal quest for citius, altius, fortius. And if they ever come up with a shot to make artists paint like DaVinci or astrophysicists to think like Steven Hawking or scribblers to write like Mark Twain or actors to perform like Hepburn and Bogart, we’d all be lining up at the door of whomever was dispensing the juice. The only people who wouldn’t be clamoring for treatment would be politicians, who think they’re perfect already.

And if the stem cells come from the person being injected with them, there’s no way anybody’s going to detect them. Worse, when genetic researchers figure out how to engineer embryos to be faster and stronger and taller, the game’s going to be over. WADA will cease to have any function and fans will sit back and enjoy the show just as they always have.

But I digress. The subject is gene doping and it goes back to 1998, when a biomedical researcher looking for ways to help people with degenerative diseases of the muscles announced that he had prompted extreme muscle growth in mice by injecting genes in the mice. The researcher, H. Lee Sweeney, soon reported that he was getting inquiries from coaches and athletes and just average Joes and Janes wondering if the treatment would work on humans.

Sweeney isn’t the only researcher in the field, and as we’re talking about human beings here, you can be sure that some of them are already offering to inject paying customers with just about anything. As Dr. Nancy Snyderman, the chief medical correspondent for NBC News, told the Today Show not long ago, there are already offshore clinics who will engineer in vitro babies with a pre-ordered gender, eye color and height range. There are also people working on cloning and without doubt others working on various genetic schemes to manufacture bigger and stronger people.

Stem cell therapy is one of the methods. From what I’ve been able to find, the jury’s out on the current state of the art. There is evidence that injecting human stem cells into damaged tissue stimulates new tissue growth. It’s not clear at all whether stem cells will have any effect on healthy tissue, and if we’re dealing with athletes, we’re dealing with the healthiest tissue you can find.

So this particular story is more than a little bit sensationalized. It’s off the charts in terms of the likelihood that what the alleged doctor offered would be of any use. And it’s horribly misleading to suggest that the Chinese are somehow leading the way. If the German reporters had been so eager to do a real story on the prevalence of people offering such therapy, they should have found a doctor in Germany or Switzerland or India or anywhere else.

Then they should have found an in vitro lab that is already providing designer babies and talked to them about what can and can’t be ordered up in an embryo. But that reeks of actual journalism, and the public probably wouldn’t watch it.

Also, WADA has to can its manufactured shock and outrage. If they’re crack drug cops didn’t know this was going on, they shouldn’t still be drawing paychecks.

Finally, don’t for a nanosecond believe this is about China. It’s not. It’s about everyone. Or did we forget already where BALCO labs did business?

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