IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Is genetic engineering next doping threat?

Will  advances in biotechnology and gene therapy  result in genetically modified athletes with the bodies of Greek gods and the prowess of Superman overwhelming ordinary mortals at future Olympics?
/ Source: Reuters

Back in the depths of time, athletes used ginseng, opium and steroids from sheep testicles to enhance their performance.

Anabolic steroids made their debut in sports in the 1940s and 50s, and chemical agents followed.

Now the big fear is that advances in biotechnology and gene therapy could result in genetically modified athletes with the bodies of Greek gods and the prowess of Superman overwhelming ordinary mortals at future Olympics.

Gene therapy, to treat or prevent disease, has not developed with the speed scientists had initially hoped but it is moving forward and it could be just a matter of time before it infiltrates sports.

“If the science develops and the regulatory and ethical frameworks are not properly established, I think there is a danger. We’ve seen it with the use of drugs that were developed for therapeutic purposes,” said Dick Pound, president of the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

“The science could probably be misapplied.”

Genetic doping is unlikely to be an issue at the Athens Olympics in August or the Turin Winter Games in 2006, but it could be a problem come Beijing in 2008.

“It’s a realistic problem which we may have to face, but not today,” said Dr. Bengt Saltin, director of the Center for Muscle Research at Copenhagen University and a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) science committee.

“The Beijing Olympics would be the earliest possible occasion.”

Doping scandal
Researchers have identified the gene for erythropoietin, or EPO, which stimulates the production of red blood cells --important for endurance sports such as the marathon and cycling.

Synthetic EPO, which is used to treat anemia and is banned by the IOC, was at the center of a doping scandal that rocked the Tour de France cycling classic in 1998.

Scientists have already injected bits of the EPO gene, using a weakened virus, into the leg muscles of monkeys in research that may one day help kidney patients awaiting an organ transplant to maintain a steady supply of red blood cells.

“There were quite positive results but they can’t control it enough,” Saltin said, referring to the research.

“When they find the control of the gene then they will definitely use it on kidney patients and I don’t think the road to the sporting world is very far.”

One of the chief doping problems for sports is anabolic steroids. Androstenedione, nandrolone and stanozolol bulk up muscle mass and increase strength. “In so many sports the muscle mass and the strength is the critical factor,” said Saltin.

Steroids are nonspecific and as researchers learn more about local growth factors, improving individual muscles with injections or genetic modification could become a possibility.

“There is very good research in the field because there are muscular dystrophy patients with selective loss of muscles. If you could find how to counteract that with these local factors it will help many patients around the world,” Saltin said.

Gene transfer
Dr. Lee Sweeney of the University of Pennsylvania and his team have already coaxed muscles in mice to grow up to 30 percent stronger. They injected mice with a growth gene known as insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I).

“The prospects are high that muscle-directed gene transfer will be used for performance enhancement,” Sweeney told a science conference where he presented the research.

At the moment, scientists believe genetic engineering is too dangerous and too little is known about the technology and its impact to pose an immediate problem. However, they believe it could be just a matter of time before it reaches sports.

In the meantime, WADA plans to keep up with advances in the technology and the with people likely to bend or break the rules.

“In the case of drugs, I think the genie was allowed to get out of the bottle early on, before people realized what the full implications would be and before the science got developed to the point where you could detect these sort of things,” said Pound.

“In genetics, our objective is to try and be there as the policy framework is developed, to be part of that process.”

Saltin believes doping controls have never been as good and this trend will continue.

“We have seen through the years that there are always people willing to use their knowledge, experience and technology to improve the athlete’s performance. If those people were not around the problem would be so much easier to handle,” he said.