Faster, bigger, better, stronger—in theory, the single most effective way to radically alter your physical capacities is to manipulate your genes. Athletes are beginning to take notice. Now that we’ve mapped out the human genome and identified exactly which genes make you buff, tough and rough—experts are concerned about the future of genetic doping.
Gene doping could spawn athletes capable of out-running, out-jumping and out-cycling even the world’s greatest champions. However, researchers at the University of Florida are attempting to prevent that from happening by detecting the first cases of gene doping in professional athletes before the practice becomes mainstream.
Recently, Tour de France was marred by a plethora of drug violations, and now we’re coming up on the 2008 . Athletes are more desperate than ever to find a way to “stay ahead of the game”.
Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), responsible for monitoring the conduct of athletes, is working with investigators around the globe to develop testing to identify competitors who have injected themselves with genetic material that is capable of enhancing muscle mass or heightening endurance.
“If an athlete injects himself in the muscle with DNA, would we be able to detect that?” asked one of France’s leading gene therapy researchers, Philippe Moullier, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Gene Therapy Laboratory at the Universite de Nantes in France.
Right now, he says the answer is clearly “no”. But that may soon change. The UF scientists are among several groups collaborating with national and global anti-doping organizations to develop a test that can detect evidence of “doped” DNA.
“WADA has had a research program in place for some years now, to try to develop tests for gene-based doping,” said Theodore Friedmann, M.D., head of the agency’s panel on genetic doping and director of the gene therapy program at the University of California, San Diego.
It may sound strange and futuristic, but experts say the trend is emerging. Unscrupulous athletes began showing an interest in gene doping a few years ago after the first reports of muscle-boosting therapies in mice were published by University of Pennsylvania researchers.
Presently several potential targets of gene doping exist, including the gene for erythropoietin, or EPO, which increases red blood cell production in patients with anemia and boosts oxygen delivery to the body. In athletes, this translates to enhanced stamina and a clear competitive edge.
“The next variation of boosting red blood cell production is to actually inject the EPO gene itself, which would cause increases in red blood cells,” said Richard Snyder, Ph.D., of UF’s Center of Excellence for Regenerative Health Biotechnology. “So the idea is to develop a test that could detect the gene that’s administered.”
But it won’t be easy. Researchers are faced with a myriad of uncertainties, such as which tissues in the body to sample and how to distinguish a “doped” gene from a natural gene.
Therefore, a major objective of the UF-French collaboration is to decipher the structure of AAV, a virus commonly used to deliver genes into the body for therapeutic purposes. Gene “doping” would enter the body through a similar route, but scientists say the two procedures are as different as night and day from an ethical standpoint.
“When you use the phrase ‘gene therapy’ it should be very clear that you’re talking about therapy,” Friedmann emphasized. “But the same process of transferring genes would also be relevant in sport doping settings. And there you cannot talk about gene ‘therapy’ – you can simply refer to the same technology as gene ‘transfer’.”
Gene therapy has progressed rapidly, but the science is not yet predictable. Scientists say gene doping could have lethal consequences, but that athletes might be willing to risk it all for the potential performance payouts.
“I think many athletes know of the technology. They’re aware and they’re concerned.” But Friedmann points out that WADA is also aware and concerned, and planning on doing whatever they can to prevent cheating athletes from messing with their genes.
Posted by Rebecca