Gene doping - sport's next big challenge (2008, Jun 12)


Gene doping - sport's next big challengeMatt Slater 12 Jun 08, 01:06 PM

What links sheep's testicles, Scandinavian fungi , strychnine and fine cognac?

Are they the contents of the cupboard under my kitchen sink? Vague memories from my stag do? The honourable way out for a rural Swedish chemist with a well-stocked drinks cabinet?

No. They are all things athletes (or Vikings) have tried to enhance performance.

Of course, they've also tried lots of amphetamines, steroids and naturally-occurring substances to help them go citius, altius and fortius , and that has made things quite tricky for those trying to maintain fair play.

No matter how many pills, rubs and potions the sporting authorities ban, the inescapable feeling is that they are slamming barn doors after the horse has bolted.

Sisyphus and his big stone , the Forth Rail Bridge 's maintenance team, Fabio Capello ...they've got nothing on sport's anti-doping regimes when it comes to endless and thankless tasks.

But at least they're still trying. And it was with this noble cause in mind the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) held its third Gene Doping Symposium in St Petersburg this week.

For those of you who don't know what that is, a symposium is a big chinwag...only kidding...gene doping is the evil twin of gene therapy and has been described as a doper's dream come true and curtains for clean sport.

Now I'm no scientist but I think I get the basic idea behind gene therapy : let's cut out the middleman (drugs) and get the body to heal itself. If a gene isn't working properly (and causing problems), let's change, manipulate or repair it.

The potential benefits to sufferers of illnesses like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or sickle cell anemia are huge. Be it encouraging the production of blood cells, boosting muscle growth or controlling the production of a certain hormone, genetic manipulation could be the answer.

Can you see why this might interest fit and healthy people who want to run faster, throw further, ride longer, but don't fancy the complications and risks of taking drugs?

Can you see how testers might be worried about how they're going to tell the difference between oxygen-bearing red blood cells or testosterone the body has produced naturally, and oxygen-bearing red blood cells or testosterone the body has been engineered to produce naturally?

And they are worried, there's no doubt about that.

This was made clear to me by Professor Theodore Friedmann , the head of Wada's gene doping panel and perhaps the world's foremost authority on gene therapy, when I spoke to him earlier this year.

"Gene doping is clearly an issue that will come to us sooner or later - so we should be worried in a general sense," he explained.

"If the question is should we be worried about it clouding the Beijing Games the answer isn't at all clear and is probably closer to no than yes.

"But Wada is taking it very seriously. They want to stay ahead of the question, they want to shape the issue rather than just respond to it.

"And anybody tempted to cheat should count on it being detectable. People in legitimate gene therapy need to be able to track genes and detect their action. New things are coming and we have promising evidence we can find things that way."

Friedmann also stressed just how foolish it would be for any athlete to dabble in what remains a very experimental area.

"Sport represents the first opening to gene transfer that is not for disease management but for the enhancement of human traits," he said.

"Any attempt to use genetic tools of this sort in sport would first of all be fraught with danger, and secondly would, in my view, be medical malpractice or professional misconduct if carried out by a medic or trainer.

"But there is a possibility of illicit use anywhere in the world. Trying to develop a legitimate clinical application for human beings is complicated but making disabled viruses or moving genes around in animal studies is within the grasp of several thousand laboratories in the UK alone. It's not that complicated.

"Illicit use in sport won't be concerned with the niceties of safe clinical research - they won't go to those extremes. So it will be done and it will be done badly.

"You are going to find mishaps and catastrophes before you find real efficacy in sport performance, I'm afraid."

So gene doping looks set to become the next line in the sand for those willing to follow Tom Simpson 's infamous maxim, "if it takes 10 to kill you, take nine and win".

The British cyclist was the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year in 1965. Two years later he died on the climb up Mont Ventoux during the Tour de France 's 13th stage.

Dehydrated by a stomach bug, he had been so doped up on amphetamines and brandy he rode beyond the pain barrier and didn't stop until his body shut down.

His death shocked sport but nothing much actually changed - cyclists, and other athletes, continued to take risks and it wasn't too long before more of them started dropping dead for wanting sporting glory too much.

But Simpson's case and gene therapy's potential benefits pose another dilemma.

Would the 1965 world road race champion have been so weakened that day if he had access to modern (and legal) sports medicine? Would today's sports drinks, supplements and vitamin shots have helped? Would he have died if his team were tracking his heart rate from the team car?

Probably not, but these are legitimate scientific advances, aren't they?

Yes, but then so is Prozac , Viagra and hormone replacement therapy . Should we deprive today's athletes of medical improvements many in society take for granted?

"The long-term question is how we answer all these questions when gene transfer technology is better understood and the tools are safer," said Friedmann.

"Athletes should not be deprived of real therapeutic tools, even preventive tools. Do we want to see sport go in that direction?"

And with that hospital pass to Wada's ethics panel I will leave you.

Matt Slater is a BBC Sport journalist focusing on sports news. Our FAQs should answer any questions you have.