Two groups of scientists have developed tests for gene doping in what the World Anti-Doping Agency hailed as a major breakthrough in fighting the next frontier in cheating in sports.
Scientists in Germany said they have come up with a blood test that can provide "conclusive proof" of gene doping, even going back as far as 56 days from when the doping took place.
A US-French research team has devised its own method for detecting genetic doping in muscles.
Doping tests to be used at London Olympics
The discoveries raise the possibility that a valid gene-doping test can be implemented across the sports world by the 2012 London Olympics.
"This is a really significant and major breakthrough," WADA director general David Howman. "This is a project we've been engaged in since 2002. Now we've reached the situation where we're pretty certain that it can be detected."
Gene doping is the practice of using genetic engineering to artificially enhance athletic performance. It is a spinoff of gene therapy, which alters a person's DNA to fight disease. The method is banned by WADA and the International Olympic Committee.
WADA funded $2 million (about R14, 2 million) in research projects to devise reliable tests, which have taken about four years to develop. Researchers said the tests can detect gene doping directly through blood samples.
"It's not through markers, it's through actual detection," Howman said. "There's a significant difference there. Using the marker method is more a probability approach, whereas the method these researchers have come up with is stone cold dead, 100%."
Tests must still be validated
Howman said the tests must still go through a scientific validation process but should be implemented "within two years." Asked whether they would be ready in time for the London Olympics, he said, "It's certainly possible." In any case, samples will be stored so they can retested later, Howman said.
While experts say they don't believe gene doping is being abused yet by athletes, they suspect it's only a matter of time.
Howman said WADA has information that some hospitals around the world are offering genetic transfers to patients.
"I think we've had sufficient anecdotal information to say it's happening, but whether it's happening across the world of sport is another issue," he said.
In Germany, scientists at Tuebingen and Mainz universities said they found a "relatively low-cost method" for detecting gene doping through conventional blood samples. They said it had previously been thought that gene doping could only be detected through costly indirect molecular tests.
The findings were published in the online edition of the scientific journal Gene Therapy.
Yes or no answers
The study said the test provides clear "yes or no answers" on whether DNA in blood samples has been transferred into the body to create performance-enhancing substances such as the endurance-boosting hormone EPO.
"The body of a gene-doped athlete produces the performance-enhancing hormones itself without having to introduce any foreign substances to the body," Prof. Perikles Simon of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz said. "Over time, the body becomes its own doping supplier."
Foreign genetic material was inserted into the muscles of laboratory mice, triggering excess production of a hormone that creates new blood vessels. Two months later, researchers could still differentiate between the mice that underwent gene doping and those that didn't.
The detection method was then backed up in tests on 327 blood samples taken from professional and recreational athletes, the researchers said.
"At the very least, the risk of being discovered months after the gene transfer has taken place should deter even the most daring dopers," Simon said.
Meanwhile, a separate study by scientists from the University of Florida and Nantes University in France was reported in "Molecular Therapy," the official journal of the American Society of Gene Therapy.
Doping detection through blood
The test also detects gene doping through blood. The researchers showed that monkeys genetically doped with EPO have an altered form of the substance in their blood. The EPO gene was injected into the monkeys' muscle, believed to be the most likely target for gene dopers.
The research found that the EPO protein produced in the muscle could be easily differentiated, "providing hope that gene doping may not be as difficult to detect as thought, at least when muscle is used as the target tissue," the study found. (Sapa, Stephen Wilson, September 2010)
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