Gene doping could replace performance-enhancing drugs, experts predict

By Morgan Ashenfelter

(AXcess News) Washington - Performance-enhancing drugs are nothing new in professional sports, as recent scandals with Major League Baseball, the Tour de France and Marion Jones attest. But members of medical and policy making communities are worried about a new technology called gene doping, which modifies genes regulating specific traits.

"The sports industry is a small window into an entire realm of non-medical testing that we need to consider how to regulate," said Mark Rothstein, director of the Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He and three other members of a panel spoke on Monday.

The focus of the panel, put on by the Hastings Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was the effects gene doping and genetic testing could have on athletes and how it should be regulated.

"The science is inevitable," said Dr. Theodore Friedmann, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego. "The time is not too early to think about policy and ethical issues."

In the sports world, gene doping would be the use of genes instead of drugs to enhance performance. Scientists have identified genes that control blood production, muscle growth and fast and slow twitch fibers, which determine muscles' ability to work at a high intensity or steady endurance. If an athlete has a lower amount of a certain gene in his or her body, a doctor could inject the athlete with more of that specific gene.

Genes are also affected by environment and development over time, meaning scientists may not be able to modify the genes that could enhance an athlete's performance.

But that's a risk most professional athletes are willing to take, said John Feinstein, National Public Radio sports commentator and the author of several sports books.

"The pressures on athletes, the fact that there's always someone right behind you and the amount of money encourages them to take the risk," Feinstein said. "To athletes, succeeding at their sport is worth the risk to their health, to be labeled as a cheater and of being caught."

Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute, said in the short run, education is the most important.

"In the next several years, it is much more likely athletes will hurt themselves because no one knows exactly how to regulate certain genes," Murray said. "In the long run, sports bodies will have to do the most in terms of policy, but there will be some room for Congress."

Genes, which are made up of DNA, can be likened to instructions that contain a person's physical and functional traits. When a problem exists within DNA, a mutation occurs in the gene, which affects whichever trait it controls.

Through gene therapy, doctors can target specific, problematic genes by injecting a virus into the person's body. The virus has been stripped of its disease-causing materials and instead carries a human gene that is mutilated or missing in that person. When the virus multiplies, the new, healthy gene will have different traits than the one it replaced.

In athletes, the injections could add traits that didn't exist before or reinforce existing traits.

Because the technology is so new, risks are high. Many patients who undergo gene therapy to cure life-threatening diseases die from contracting other diseases, such as leukemia. Friedmann encourages the use of gene therapy only for patients with life-threatening mutations, not for healthy athletes.

"Gene therapy is an immature technique, still," Friedmann said. "It's experimental medicine."

Murray said that one protection would be to discourage gene testing, at least on children.

Gene testing analyzes a person's DNA to look for a number of specific traits, such as cognitive ability, addiction, sexuality and coordination. What Rothstein is concerned about is parents using genetic testing to place children on a certain life path, including sports. He cited Genetic Technologies, an Australian company, which offers such tests.

"It is an incorrect notion, genetic determinism, to think that genes are immutable," Rothstein said.

Genetic Technologies' test analyzes a person for disease susceptibility, identity and sports performance, specifically ACTN3, which controls fast twitch fibers.

"This won't affect the 2008 Olympic Games," Murray said. "But companies will soon be peddling gene doping, and there will be willing and eager athletes as customers."

Source: Scripps Howard Foundation Wire