Gene Doping: The Next Big Thing in Cheating

As evidenced by the Tour de France's continuing troubles with chemical and blood doping, many professional athletes (but by no means all) are willing to take drastic measures to get an "edge." Blood doping involves strengthening a person's endurance by a blood transfusion. The extra red blood cells increase the recipient's ability to transport oxygen to tissues temporarily, but also expose the athlete to serious cardiovascular risks. Doping with drugs and hormones is also widely publicized, with the some of the usual suspects being artificial testosterone, human growth hormone, modafinil, and erythropoietin (EPO). Most problematic for the doping athlete is the issue of random drug testing, which detect most illicit doping drugs and can detect for recent blood transfusions. So, how to get around that?

Gene doping is defined by the World Anti-Doping Agency as "the non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or of the modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to improve athletic performance". Yeah, thats right, self-inflicted and unwarranted gene therapy to increase athletic ability. For example, there exist several types of debilitating muscle-wasting disorders which have a genetic base. Currently, gene therapy techniques are being developed to treat some of these diseases by replacing missing gene products in the body and boosting muscle mass by producing hormones like IGF-I (insulin-like growth factor I). What if this is used by a normal person, in order to get extraordinary muscle mass? Gene therapy is often irreversible and permanent, and the downstream effects in normal people who do not require it cannot be wholly predicted.

Why would anyone risk gene therapy for extra muscles? Because its undetectable with current testing methods, for one, and one gene therapy treatment might last for years and years. The byproducts of gene therapy are produced in locally-affected tissues (ie muscles) and are not detectable in blood or urine.

The issue of gene doping has already been taken seriously by legal and sporting groups.

[In 2001] the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Medical Commission met to discuss the implications of gene therapy for sport. It was shortly followed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which met in 2002 to discuss genetic enhancement at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Also in 2002, the United States President's Council on Bioethics met twice to discuss the ethics of genetic technology related to sport. In 2003, WADA decided to include a prohibition of gene doping within their World Anti-Doping Code, which is formalised in its 2004 World Anti-Doping Code. As well, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) met in 2003 and 2004 to discuss the science and ethics of gene transfer technology for sport.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has already asked scientists to help find ways to prevent gene therapy from becoming the newest means of doping. In December 2005, the World Anti-Doping Agency hosted its second landmark meeting on gene doping, which took place in Stockholm. At this meeting, the delegates drafted a declaration on gene doping which, for the first time, included a strong discouragement on the use of genetic testing for performance.

There's an interesting documentary you can check out on the subject created by Michigan State.


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Nice post.

It's probably worth noting that at present, gene therapy doesn't work well enough in humans to have any benefit for doping purposes. Hopefully, though, we will some day get it to work well for therapeutic purposes. Once we do, I fully expect some athletes will abuse it.

(For all I know, athletes may be attempting to gene dope now, but if so, I'm confident they're getting no meaningful advantage.)

gene doping eh? where can I get my hands on that!?

I know there's been some work on delivering naked expression vector DNA to skeletal muscle. Not very high efficiency but expression persists long than you might think for a non-viral vector.

I know there's been some work on delivering naked expression vector DNA to skeletal muscle. Not very high efficiency but expression persists long than you might think for a non-viral vector.

True, but that "not very high efficiency" is a big stumbling block. Currently, between the low number of cells that get transfected/transformed, and the low efficiency of expression you get from those cells, there's just not enough going on to get a useful effect.

I admit it's been a few years since I was active in this field, but I'm pretty sure the above still holds true. Hopefully not forever, but....

Very interesting. From the genome mapping, I wonder if we even have an idea of where to start with this one? I would think this kind of thing would be years in the making due to less funding than other genetic ressearch.