Just in time for the Winter Olympics, scientists are warning of a new breed of performance-enhancing agents that use cutting-edge genetic technology and may be particularly hard to detect.
Some researchers are already fielding inquiries from athletes and trainers who want to know how they can modify genes to boost endurance or muscle mass, to speed injury healing or to alter pain perception, according to an article in Science.
"If the researcher says it's not ready for use in humans and has to go to clinical trials first, the comeback from the coach is, 'Well, maybe we can use my athlete as your human subject,'" said article co-author Mark Frankel, director of the scientific freedom, responsibility and law program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a non-profit organisation in Washington, DC.
Not only is "gene doping" cheating, it could be dangerous, Frankel said. Altering genes is considered highly risky and experimental, with who-knows-what consequences if the intended effect goes awry.
Genetically modified athletes 'worrying'
"We are worried," Frankel said. "We think the kinds of advances that are happening on the medical front to treat various diseases or even injuries will be embraced and tried by athletes and their coaches looking for the next competitive edge."
The World Anti-Doping Agency is well aware of the potential for genetically modified athletes, said Dr Theodore Friedmann, director of the gene therapy program at University of California, San Diego, and chair of the gene doping panel for the World Anti-Doping Agency in Montreal.
Genetic therapy is among the most promising new strategies for treating disease, Friedmann said. Genetic therapists in hundreds of labs around the world are researching, mostly in animal models, how genes or their expression could be altered to treat disease.
Techniques include introducing new genes into cells using a virus as a vector or even using drugs that change how genes function.
Ways in which athletes might use gene therapy could be to boost endurance through increased red blood cell production, increasing muscle mass, manipulating the production or use of metabolic energy or altering fat metabolism or pain perception, Friedmann said.
"We suspect potential gene dopers are watching gene technology, learning a lot from how it's done legitimately and are preparing to use similar techniques in sports," said Friedmann, who co-wrote the article with Frankel and Olivier Rabin of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Websites making dubious claims
With the 2010 Winter Olympics set to begin on February 12, should fans wonder if that winning speed skater or skier is using genetic manipulation to cheat?
It's probably still difficult for athletes to obtain the substances or the technology needed for genetic modifications today, Frankel said. But on the Web, companies are already making perhaps dubious claims about products that promise to "alter muscle genes ... by activating your genetic machinery" or make "every bodybuilder ... genetically gifted!"
And traditional forms of performance-enhancing drugs still abound. Substances banned at the Olympics includes stimulants, anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and erythropoietin, a synthetic hormone that acts on stem cells in the bone marrow to increase the production of red blood cells and increase endurance.
The parade of elite athletes caught using banned substances continues. Erythropoietin has been implicated in doping scandals among cyclists in the Tour de France and long-distance runners. Steroid use has disgraced numerous Major League Baseball players. Tennis pro Andre Agassi has admitted using methamphetamines.
No tests for genetic manipulations
While those substances can be detected through blood or urine tests, "we don't have tests for any of the genetic manipulations," Frankel said. "We will have to look for the physiological changes that could occur only if those artificial interventions took place."
Frankel urged athletes and their trainers to beware of taking such risks in the first place. In one real-life example, researchers used gene therapy in a small number of infants with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), known as the "bubble boy" disease. Although some of the children were much improved, several developed leukaemia.
"We basically know what steroids can do to the body. But at this point, we're not sure if you start making changes in your genetic makeup, who knows what you are going to trigger?" Frankel said.
"Maybe it will be inert and not do even what you're hoping it will do. Or maybe it will have some unforeseen consequences for their health." - (HealthDay News, February 2010)