Far from science fiction, genetically enhanced athletes may soon be a reality, and scientists may have a problem catching the sportsman at this new frontier of doping.
How gene doping would work
Gene therapies are offering great promise in treating a wide variety of conditions. So-called vectors, in most cases viruses, are used to transfer genetic information into cells. The idea is that the new genetic information can correct the damaged or absent genes associated with the particular genetic condition.
In 1998 a study was published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showing that gene therapies could be used to strengthen muscle in mice. The work was done with the eye on future gene therapies to treat the depletion of ageing muscle and conditions such as muscular dystrophy.
Boosting blood genetically
Apart from muscle enhancement, genetic changes to an athlete's blood may also result in improved performance. This would involve inserting a gene into a person's bloodstream to boost production of the hormone erythropoietin (epo).
Dangers of gene doping
Increased levels of epo leads to a thickening of blood, which in turn, raises the risk of bloodclotting and stroke. When using synthetic epo the risk is only temporary, since the body will flush out the drug over time.
Gene doping, a real concern
Despite the risks associated with gene doping, experts nevertheless consider the threat as imminent.
Gene therapy: what you should know