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Strong New Measures Against Gene Doping in Sports Urged at Conference Co-Sponsored by AAAS
[Photograph © and courtesy of UC San Diego]
As the field of gene therapy matures, the techniques used to manipulate genetic material for therapeutic purposes are poised to join steroids and other illegal performance-enhancing drugs used in sports, experts said at a world anti-doping conference co-sponsored by AAAS.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, urged governments to develop sanctions for doctors and other licensed professionals who attempt illegal gene transfer in athletes. Scientists should also document natural genetic differences in physical traits so that future tests could assess whether an athlete's genes had been modified, the group concluded. And, it said, governments should impose stronger regulation on commercial genetic technologies that are already becoming available over the Internet.
Although there have been no documented cases of gene doping, participants at WADA's Third Gene Doping Symposium said the science of gene therapy and interest in the techniques by the sports community has risen to a level that makes gene doping inevitable.
Gene doping would add new genes or manipulate an athlete's own genes that control muscle growth and development or endurance, for instance. New genes could be added to cells and tissues using a targeted virus or other delivery method but researchers are also preparing for the possibility that an athlete's own genes could be modified by treatment with genetic elements or even drugs. These processes would exploit transfer techniques developed by researchers for therapeutic purposes, such as restoring immune function in certain genetic diseases.
As a result, athletes seeking muscle bulk or a rush of oxygen-laden red blood cells could be pioneers in a new world of human enhancement, where methods of gene manipulation are used to alter a person's abilities or physical appearance rather than treat disease, said Theodore Friedmann, former president of American Society of Gene Therapy and current director of the University of California-San Diego Gene Therapy Program.
"Science has moved so quickly in gene therapy and because it moves so quickly, it makes the non-therapeutic use of these kinds of methods much more likely and much more imminent," he said. "And the sooner it pops up in sport, the more likely it is to pop up in other areas."
Mark S. Frankel
Mark S. Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program, said gene doping may become a factor as early as the 2012 Olympic Games. "The feeling is that in that amount of time, the science can make significant inroads. In the competitive world of sports, everyone is looking for an edge, and there's every reason to believe that coaches and their athletes, maybe even their agents, will be looking at this."
The new declaration by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was released this month after more than 60 representatives from 16 countries met for its Third Gene Doping Symposium from 10-11 June. In the past, WADA has fought athletes' use of steroids, blood doping and other artificial means of improving performance.
WADA was established in 1999, an outgrowth of efforts by the International Olympic Committee to combat doping in sports. Its work is supported by governments, inter-governmental organizations, and other public and private bodies. The Third Gene Doping Symposium in St. Petersburg was attended by more than 60 representatives from 16 countries.
Frankel, who helped organize the symposium with the help of a grant from the Greenwall Foundation, said AAAS was asked to join this year's conference to bring a broader perspective on gene doping's ethical, legal, and social implications. The Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program released a report on human enhancement in 2006 and more recently helped organize a session on human enhancement at the 2008 AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C.
"I think it's extremely important for WADA as a world organization to have feedback from a scientific organization like AAAS, bringing its voice and its reflections on some of the issues we are facing beyond the technical aspects," said Olivier Rabin, the agency's science director.
Friedmann said the idea of gene doping "hasn't had time to take shape in the public's mind," despite the prominence of other doping scandals such as steroid use by major league baseball players in the United States and Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, as well as Tour de France cyclist Floyd Landis' suspension from the sport for synthetic testosterone.
But in the sports community, gene doping is already "perceived as the next frontier," said Rabin. He noted that a 2006 e-mail from German coach Thomas Springstein inquiring about the illegal purchase of Repoxygen, a gene-based therapy still in development that may boost the production of red blood cells, made headlines around the world.
WADA has invested over $7 million in research to develop gene-doping screening tests, but also supports an extensive education and outreach program to warn athletes and their coaches about the risks of using fledgling genetic technologies without medical supervision. Despite this, Frankel said he was surprised to hear how often researchers are contacted by coaches who volunteer their athletes as test subjects for gene transfer experiments.
Friedmann said athletes—and perhaps others—would see these risks as acceptable. "Given the chance to trade a few years of their life for an Olympic medal, they will do that," he observed. "If you were to say the same thing to a community of scientists—'I'll give a guaranteed Nobel Prize for ten years of your life'—don't you think some would accept that risk?"
16 July 2008