Gene doping may give athletes edgeTinkering with mutations would be much harder to detect than the substance doping some use today By Greg Lavine The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake Tribune Article Last Updated:04/28/2007 01:28:04 AM MDT

Performance-enhancing drugs can be tough enough to detect in athletes, but the future of cheating - gene doping - may be even harder to notice. And it could be happening now, said Utah genetics expert Marc Williams. Most illegal sports drugs are designed to enhance the body's production of natural substances, such as testosterone or steroids. But gene manipulation could alter an athlete's genetic makeup to bump up the amount of certain substances. There are no proven cases of gene doping, yet the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency have already banned the practice. Gene doping was one of several topics discussed by Williams, director of the Intermountain Clinical Genetics Institute at LDS Hospital, and other doctors this week in Murray during a seminar on the growing link between genomics and athletics. Part of the problem, the experts agreed, is there is no sure way to prove someone has been gene doping. "It's gonna be tough to detect this stuff," said Eric Heiden, an Olympic gold medalist in speed skating who is an orthopedic surgeon at TOSH, The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital, in Murray, "and it's gonna work." An area of potential concern is genetic ways to alter an athlete's blood. The traditional cheat involves the drug erythropoietin, or EPO, which is used to increase hemoglobin levels in the body. Williams said hemoglobin can be thought of as buckets carrying oxygen to vital tissues. Increasing hemoglobin levels means more buckets are available to distribute oxygen. Drugs that mess with hemoglobin levels can leave telltale signs that can be found in drug testing. If a gene has been altered to increase EPO levels, it may leave behind no sign of foul play. This raises the question of genetically-gifted athletes who happen to have beneficial mutations. A champion Nordic skier from Finland, Eero M`ntyranta, in the 1960s had a genetic mutation that helped his body to produce higher levels of EPO, and this likely gave him an edge over competitors, Williams said. Genetic researchers may be able to detect abnormally high levels of certain substances, but there might be no way to prove who has been gene doped and who is genetically gifted, Williams said. Gene doping has already taken place in lab animals, including mice and monkeys, but there is no evidence the practice has made the leap to humans, he said. To alter an athlete's genetics, a modified virus cell could be used to carry a new gene into a person's DNA, he said. Just as drugs can have negative side effects, gene doping may also have unforeseen long-term consequences on other bodily functions. These concerns may apply more to the possibility of creating genetically altered superathletes from birth. Williams said parents might one day have the option of picking genetic traits in their offspring, such as bulkier body for football or a taller frame for basketball. "Where is the child's choice?" asked Williams. The doctor also wondered what happens after a genetically-altered athletes pass their physical peak, and are no longer good at what they were designed to do.