Gene doping - the battleground (2008, Nov 15)


I interviewed for Simon, got him to Florence for the gene doping meet, gave him a copy of my book and he didnt even bother to quote me. Bad form Simon! Gene doping - the battleground Telegraph Sport take a look at the front-line of drug-enhanced sport.

By Simon Hart Last Updated: 5:47PM GMT 15 Nov 2008 Myostatin What is it? A protein that inhibits muscle growth in animals and humans. How can it benefit athletes? If the gene responsible for myostatin is switched off, muscles will increase in size. Does gene modification work? Successful in trials on mice and dogs and set to go into commercial use as a veterinary treatment next year. Untested on humans but known to produce an immune reaction, so risky. Can it be detected? No, but researchers hope to find ways of testing for the virus used to deliver the gene. IGF-1 What is it? Insulin-like growth factor 1, a natural protein that promotes muscle- growth and repair but declines with age. How can it benefit athletes? Over-production of IGF-1 will cause an increase in muscle mass and strength. Does gene modification work? Successful in animal trials but human application still being tested. Has to be injected locally into muscle because high levels in the bloodstream cause problems with other tissues. Can it be detected? Not without a muscle biopsy. EPO What is it? A naturally occurring protein that produces red blood cells. How can it benefit athletes? A richer supply of oxygen-carrying blood cells reduces fatigue in muscles, which makes EPO so beloved of endurance athletes such as road cyclists and cross-country skiers. Does gene modification work? Offers prospect of permanent source of extra EPO rather than short-term burst. Trials on monkeys have had mixed results, with some producing dangerously high amounts of EPO and others developing immune responses. Very risky for humans at present. Can it be detected? Preliminary research suggests it will be detectable to drug-testers. What if... ...genetically modified animals were allowed into sport? By Andrew Baker · Lewis Hamilton dedicates second world motor racing title to the artificially enhanced hamsters who turn the wheels of his McLaren. “I’d have been nowhere without Nibbles, Whiflet, Coco and Mr Muscles,” the driver acknowledges. · Ranks of matadors decimated by giant, four-horned bulls. · Scientifically improved chimpanzee wins Tour de France. “The team pay me peanuts,” the muscular ape tells reporters on the Champs Elysees.’’What could be better?” · Air-breathing octopus with eight rackets wins Wimbledon singles title.Defeated finalist Andy Murray vows to clone himself and enter next year’s men’s doubles. · Greyhound Derby won by Tiny, a powerful Chihuahua who runs between his opponents’ legs. · Dee Caffari towed to victory in Vendee Globe round-the-world yacht race by killer whale fitted with genetic SatNav. “To be honest, I read my book most of the way”, the skipper confesses.

Drug cheats may benefit from animal test Lee Sweeney, professor of physiology at the University of Pennsylvania, is a popular man in the world of sport.

By Simon Hart Last Updated: 5:48PM GMT 15 Nov 2008 He gets between five and 10 emails a week from athletes, some from Britain, and so many phone calls that his secretary has stopped putting them through. And that is in a quiet week. If he publishes an academic paper or does a media interview, a flurry of 50 or more calls and emails usually follows, as it did 10 years ago when he first revealed his 'mighty mice' to the world at a meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology – laboratory mice with enormous muscles that retained their strength and regenerative ability even when the animals reached old age. Sweeney's super-strong rodents were the product of his pioneering research into gene transfer technology and the implications were clearly not lost on the athletes and coaches who got in touch, one of whom offered $100,000 for what the mice were getting. Shockingly, Sweeney also received a request from a high school American football coach for his entire team to be genetically modified. Sweeney told him what he is still telling everyone a decade later, that bulking up on gene therapy is not yet safe enough for humans and would require heavy-duty immune suppression. He always gets the same response. "Even if I explain to them that to make it work might require all sorts of heroic measures, they basically say, 'Fine. I'll do it'. And if it's a matter of money, they'll get the money." Sweeney has never been contacted by a name he recognises – "I don't get Barry Bonds calling me up" – and says most of the would-be guinea pigs appear to be young athletes trying to make the big time. "Some of them are from Europe," he says. "I get quite a few from the UK and Germany." He says he would feel uneasy about passing on their names to the anti-doping authorities but is sufficiently concerned to have accepted a seat on the gene-doping panel of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), who are funding eight research projects on gene-doping detection in a desperate attempt to stay ahead of the cheats. Sweeney is bracing himself for another surge of calls and emails next year when his work moves from the laboratory to the commercial world with a muscle-building gene therapy for dogs. It will be available not only for dogs with muscular diseases but dogs that are just old and immobile who, after an injection in their liver, could soon be running around like puppies again. "We are now in the final stages of getting all the approvals to offer this through the veterinary hospital as a treatment to try to improve strength in pet dogs," he says. "As the dogs get weak their owners get upset that they can't walk around any more. So we're hoping that within the next year we will begin the era of genetic enhancement in dogs." Sweeney hopes his new canine anti-aging treatment will be just the start. Humans have the same gene that Sweeney is manipulating in dogs and the next step will be to treat people with serious genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy. Ultimately, he hopes to give the elderly, like the pampered pooches of Pennsylvania, greater muscle strength and mobility in their final years. But any breakthrough will inevitably be seized upon by dope cheats in the same way that clinical drugs such as steroids, human growth hormone and the red blood cell-boosting EPO soon found their way into kit bags. With the prospect of as yet undetectable, lifelong enhancement, how could any drug cheat resist? As gene transfer technology enters the medical mainstream as a treatment for numerous diseases from blindness to cancer, scientists are agreed it is only a matter of time before it crosses over into sport. Some predict that London 2012 could be the first genetically modified Olympic Games. Others say the Beijing Games may already have that dubious honour. "We do not have any proof that gene doping has been practised yet but we have had signs that people are interested and they are looking at it," says Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee's medical commission. Evidence that sport is closing in on the science came two years ago when German police discovered an email sent by Thomas Springstein, the disgraced former coach of sprinter Katrin Krabbe, complaining about how difficult it was to get hold of Repoxygen, a sophisticated agent for delivering EPO by means of gene transfer. Springstein was later convicted of giving doping substances to children. Cyclists are also beating at the door. A French gene expert, Professor Philippe Moullier, had his eyes opened when a couple of former Tour de France cyclists paid a visit to his laboratory in Nantes, where he is experimenting on EPO genes in monkeys as a treatment for anaemia. The pair were working for an anti-doping organisation – or at least that is what they told Moullier – and said they wanted to learn about his research. "The thing that really surprised me was that when I told them it was just the start of the technology, they told me that the riders would not care," says Moullier. "They would go for it if they had a chance to be undetectable. "They said there were kids in the Tour de France who would do anything just to have the most advanced technology. It's a concern because there are still severe adverse side-effects. We are taking such care before it comes to patients so we are scared to see guys who are ready to use it. It's terrible." If the risks are no deterrent, cheats still have to overcome the complexity of gene modification, though if the BALCO conspirators were able to find a biochemist capable of altering a molecule and synthesising a new designer steroid, engaging the services of gene expert should not be beyond the wit and wealth of an athlete determined enough to cheat. "I think the real threat is from scientists and clinicians who decide they want to make money off the athletes to make this available," says Sweeney. "There are people in India and China who will do stem cell transplantation in anyone who'll pay them. There is no evidence anything they are doing has any effect on the patients but they'll do it for money. At some point someone will say, 'I'll do immune suppression if you want me to and I'll put in any gene you want'." Sweeney admits that day could not be far away. "The bottom line is that we're going to be able to do genetic enhancement for serious diseases," he says. "It's not beyond the realm of possibility that over the next few years, if someone has sufficient help and sufficient motivation, it could be done outside that arena."

Elderly dogs to be offered genetic enhancement to make them young again Frail elderly dogs could be injected with genes which allow them to run around like puppies, with technology which could be approved by next year.

Simon Hart and Laura Donnelly Last Updated: 12:09AM GMT 16 Nov 2008 An American professor is preparing to market a form of canine gene therapy, which would see dogs injected with substances which switch off the genes that regulate their muscle growth. Prof Lee Sweeney, from the University of Pennsylvania, has pioneered research into gene transfer technology, a field in which poorly functioning and abnormal genes are manipulated, switched off or replaced. Ten years ago he created "mighty mice" in the lab with enormous muscles and strength in old age. Now he says experiments on dogs have been so successful that he is preparing to market the treatments to owners of ageing pets across the United States. He said: "We are now in the final stages of getting all the approvals to offer this through the veterinary hospital as a treatment to try to improve strength in pet dogs. "As the dogs get weak their owners get upset that they can't walk around any more. So we're hoping that within the next year we will begin the era of genetic enhancement in dogs." Under the therapy, dogs would be given an injection into the liver of an inhibitor which switches off the gene which produces myostatin, a protein which inhibits muscle growth in animals and humans. The treatment has passed laboratory trials, but regulatory authorities are now discussing whether the dogs would have to be held in quarantine after treatment, because of possible risks if humans came into contact with their waste after the procedure, Prof Sweeney said. Scientists hope the same technology could be used in humans, to treat serious genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy. Human trials of gene therapy have faced difficulties due to the risks of introducing new genes into cells or unintentionally interfering with genes other than those being targeted, which can include inducing cancers. In some cases the immune system may also have to be suppressed, which can also have increase the risk of infection and other diseases. Despite the dangers attached to the use of genetic transfer in humans, the professor of physiology is regularly contacted by athletes desperate to use the technology to enhance their performance. Gene doping is one of the greatest fears of sports regulators, because injections of genes directly into muscle would be almost impossible to detect. Prof Sweeney says every week he refuses approaches from athletes who will do anything to get their hands on genetic material, including one from a high-school football coach who wanted his entire team to be genetically modified. He tells them that bulking up on gene therapy is not yet safe enough for humans, and would require heavy-duty immune suppression, even if it were legal. Prof Sweeney said he always gets the same response: "Even if I explain to them that to make it work might require all sorts of heroic measures, they basically say 'Fine, I'll do it'.