Science: Genetics and Sports Enhancement on a Collision Course

Traditionally, cheating in sports through doping has been enabled mostly by advances in pharmacology. But as new methods of genetic modification emerge, both the scientific and the sports communities are becoming increasingly aware that gene therapy—the insertion of genes into an individual’s cells and tissues—will make its way onto the playing field.

Now, prominent researchers are calling on scientists to warn athletes of the potential dangers associated with manipulating one’s genetic makeup. Although there has been some recent success in treating disease with gene therapy, these types of procedures are far from perfect and can put a user’s health—and life—at risk.

In a Policy Forum in the new issue of Science, Theodore Friedmann, M.D., from the University of California in San Diego and colleagues from Montreal and Washington, D.C., highlight how gene therapy and other methods of genetic modification are poised to complicate international sports competitions like the Olympics, and indeed already have.

“A German athletic coach was found attempting to obtain Repoxygen, a gene transfer vector that expresses the erythropoietin gene [and boosts red blood cell production]. Furthermore, a Chinese genetics laboratory reportedly offered gene-based manipulations before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing,” Friedmann writes in the Policy Forum. “It is not clear whether these or other similar attempts reached the stage of actual use in human athletes, but there seem to be few technical barriers standing in the way.”

According to the authors, potentially powerful methods of detecting genetic manipulation among athletes have emerged, and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will consider implementing some of them in the near-future. Already highly concerned by the implications of gene doping in sports, WADA has sponsored teams of researchers around the world to explore even more ways to bar gene therapy from athletic competition.

Such organizations seem to be joining a battle that has already begun, however, because marketing campaigns targeted at athletes seeking to enhance their performance in a sport have already started to flood the Internet. Advertisements for affordable gene enhancement procedures can now be found across the Web, promising to “alter muscle genes” or “trigger your genetic muscle-building material.” And there is a pro-doping community as well, which argues that athletes should be free to use whatever enhancing agents science makes available to them.

Friedmann and his colleagues insist, however, that these marketing campaigns are a significant worry to those who wish to keep gene doping out of sports. Gene therapy procedures in humans have been linked to the onset of leukemia and various tumors, as well as sudden death.

With such risks to athletes’ health and the integrity of sports, scientists should not allow themselves to be mere bystanders in these matters, the authors of the Policy Forum write.

“Scientists must realize that their research can influence sport in ways that raise important social issues,” said co-author Mark S. Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program at AAAS. “They should work cooperatively with sports organizations to educate the larger public about the nature of their research and its laudable goals, as well as its potential abuses and the dangers it poses.”

The global marketplace is ready to meet the demand of enhancement agents that will inevitably include untested, unregulated products and exaggerated claims. It’s up to the scientific community to maintain and enforce international codes of ethics regarding clinical research on gene therapy techniques, the authors say.