Athletes have found all kind of methods to run faster, jump higher and hit harder. Turn-of-the century French cyclists chugged a brew of strychnine, cocaine and caffeine to keep pedaling while erstwhile Hall-of-Fame baseball pitchers like Roger Clemens allegedly used human growth hormone to keep their fastballs zinging.
Some of these athletes have been caught, others have gotten ill or died, while others have probably reached the top of their sport. The one thing they've all had in common is the use of a foreign substance to stimulate the body. But the latest frontier is something called "gene doping" -- turning on molecular switches inside the body's own DNA to produce more oxygen-carrying blood or creating bigger muscle cells.
A few years ago, a German track coach was busted trying to obtain an experimental gene therapy drug used to boost blood in anemia patients, while some Chinese doctors were offering similar treatments before the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, according to news reports.
This month, scientists in Europe and the U.S. took a step closer to exposing genetically modified athletes by developing a new test that they expect will be ready by the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
"It's actually detecting the DNA itself," said Richard Snyder, director of the Center for Excellence for Reproductive Health Biotechnology at the University of Florida and author of a new paper in the journal Molecular Therapy.
The new study by Snyder and researchers at the University of Nantes in France showed that monkeys genetically doped with the blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, have a modified form of EPO in their blood. That's the target for a human-based test.
A similar study by German scientists at the University of Tubingen announced a separate test that can detect gene doping up to 56 days before the athlete is checked.
The new tests "are certainly going to be an important new tool," said Thomas Friedmann, a professor at the University of California, San Diego and chairman of the World Anti-Doping Association's gene doping committee. "Exactly how it's going to succeed we will see."
Friedmann said that animal studies have shown that both endurance and muscles can be boosted by transferring genetic material. The problem is that gene transfer and gene therapy hasn't worked so well in people.
"It's hard to deliver to the right place, it's hard to keep the genes turned on, there are side effects and most of the studied have not proven to be very effective," Friedmann said about gene therapy. "But the people who would try gene doping are not interested in sophisticated research, they would do it hamfistedly. That's a sure recipe for disaster."
Snyder said that when his research team boosted mice EPO, the animal's red blood cell production went into overdrive and the animals died of stroke.
"Their blood turned to Jell-O," Snyder said.
Other experts warned that injections of muscle building DNA may only work in one part of the body -- making one arm super-strong and the other one normal.
Sports authorities say they are on the lookout for abnormalities in both performances and biological markers that could indicate something fishy.
"Just like any other medicine or pharmaceutical product, there's a black market,'' said David Howman, director general of the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency. ''It's exactly the same in gene doping and we have to keep our eyes open for that.''