Sometime in the near future, an athlete might walk into a lab and ask for an injection that will bring a world of possibility. Take this and hit home runs like Barry Bonds, the athlete would be told. Take it and fly around the track like Marion Jones. This might sound like another story about steroids, but it’s not. The topic is genetic doping.
Because it uses DNA to stimulate or block natural chemicals, it won’t show up in a blood or urine test. With billions of dollars at stake every year in sports and the lure of fame stronger than ever, gene doping is expected to be the next big issue for sport.
Experts in the field of genetic research predict it could happen in five or 10 years. Or sooner. I don’t think it would surprise any of us if tomorrow we picked up a newspaper and saw that (an athlete) had died of a stroke after getting involved with gene therapy, said Dr. Theodore Friedmann, director of the gene therapy program at the University of California at San Diego and considered to be the worlds top authority in the field.
Genetic doping has the potential to make a mockery of what is currently considered fair athletic competition. The World Anti-Doping Agency has formed a panel, led by Friedmann and it will meet next month, to study the issue and come up with methods for detection. There is no firm evidence right now that people are using genetic manipulation to enhance performance, he said, but there have been a number of studies done with mice and rats that suggest such a thing can be done.
Gene therapy is not a new concept by any means. Over the past 30 years, scientists have been making numerous breakthroughs. Techniques have been developed in rats in which a synthetic version of the gene that produces insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1, can be used to spur muscle growth or repair at the cellular level.
IGF-1 normally occurs naturally in cells, and when it is injected directly into the muscles it has little effect. But scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, led by Dr. Lee Sweeney, have developed a technique in which the gene can be carried into cells using a harmless virus. There the gene fuses with the cells DNA and causes the body to produce more IGF-1, a protein that helps rebuild muscles when they deteriorate.
In other studies, scientists have used similar techniques to block a protein, myostatin, that limits muscle-building in the body. With myostatin blocked, lab mice in studies developed twice the normal muscle mass. Such results have given hope to people with diseases like muscular dystrophy, in which muscles can not repair as fast as they deteriorate.
So far, IGF-1 has not been studied in any human clinical trials, but Wyeth Pharmaceuticals recently conducted the first human clinical trial with a myostatin inhibitor. What worries both scientists and anti-doping officials is the scope for abuse in the name of athletics, Friedmann said.
Dr. Steven Ungerleider, a prominent sports psychologist and the author of Faust Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine, said that as long as the science is out there, athletes will be willing to abuse it. And while Ungerleider says he believes it is unlikely there will be another situation like what happened in the 1970s and 1980s in East Germany (where the government was behind a doping scandal and cover-up that involved nearly 10,000 athletes) there are plenty of scientists working independently, with little or no oversight, on the next phase of performance enhancement.
Part of what will probably make genetic doping appealing to athletes is the difficulty of detection. In the case of IGF-1, because the synthetic gene activates natural chemicals that repair and build muscles, evidence of doping would be difficult to find. Detection might involve a magnetic resonance imaging scan or muscle biopsies, which would require inserting a large needle into the muscle.
You would need muscle biopsies done relatively close to competition, said Dr. Steven Roth, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland. How many athletes are going to agree to that? It is not feasible.
The issue of testing becomes even more complex because it crosses borders and requires cooperation from numerous authorities to be viable and credible. John Hoberman, the author of several books on athletic doping, including the forthcoming Testosterone Dreams, said that doping-control officers who travel around the globe to test athletes are often greeted by violence. I know stories of one doping officer who was attacked by a mob in the street, said Hoberman. It is a global problem that is going to require a global solution.
Hoberman also said that, eventually, society must come to terms with what exactly is performance enhancement and what level is acceptable. Athletic doping right now is taking place in a society where an entire range of performance-enhancing drugs have become ordinary, Hoberman said. The president and the attorney general are not out there saying that Botox is an outrage and Viagra is an outrage, and so there is a huge disconnect between how athletes are required to be drug-free and ordinary citizens are not.
Friedmann said genetic doping might force society to address the larger question of what sports should really be about. ‘A lot of us grew up with the very romantic view of sports, he said. Athletics is such an important part of society because it is about accomplishment against physical odds. Doping in general poses the questions of, What is sport? What do we want sport to be? Do we want it to be about athletic achievement or about pharmacology? We can all sit here and glorify a few more home runs, and it is terrific, but it’s not sport any longer.