New fron­tier of dop­ing

Gene dop­ing can change the na­ture of sports

Down to Earth - - RIO 2016 -

THE IN­TER­NA­TIONAL Olympic Com­mit­tee came close to us­ing a new anti-dop­ing test at Rio. It is de­signed to catch ath­letes who use genes rather than drugs to en­hance their per­for­mance. But the newly de­vel­oped test could not be rolled out in time. The com­mit­tee now says it will use the test on blood sam­ples col­lected at Rio af­ter the games.

Wel­come to the brave new Olympics. Gene dop­ing is gene ther­apy but used for en­hanc­ing sports per­for­mance rather than treat ail­ments. It in­volves in­ject­ing a gene help­ful in boost­ing ath­letic per­for­mance into the cells of a per­son. The tar­get could be trig­ger­ing the growth of mus­cles or oxy­gen­car­ry­ing red blood cells. The tech­nol­ogy for safely in­sert­ing a syn­thetic gene in a per­son is still evolv­ing but some sci­en­tists and the World Anti-Dop­ing Agency ( wada) think the threat of its mis­use in sports is high. “Given re­cent de­vel­op­ments in gene edit­ing, gene dop­ing will be the new fron­tier of dop­ing un­less there is proac­tive in­vest­ment in re­search which, at present, seems not to be hap­pen­ing,” Yan­nis Pit­si­ladis, an anti-dop­ing ex­pert with the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee, told Down To Earth. Sci­en­tists have tried two ways of in­sert­ing a gene into a cell: one, har­vest­ing cells from a pa­tient, ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fy­ing them and im­plant­ing them back into the per­son; and two, de­liv­er­ing the gene straight into the body. Pioneer of gene ther­apy H Lee Sweeney has used viruses as the de­liv­ery ve­hi­cle since “viruses are skilled at smug­gling genes into cells”. As he de­scribes it “they sur­vive and prop­a­gate by trick­ing the cells of a host or­gan­ism into bring­ing the virus in­side, rather like a bi­o­log­i­cal Tro­jan horse. Once within the nu­cleus of a host cell, the virus uses the cel­lu­lar ma­chin­ery to repli­cate its genes and pro­duce pro­teins.” The pro­teins thus pro­duced are al­most like their nat­u­ral coun­ter­parts. And since they are pro­duced lo­cally, they may not en­ter the blood, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to de­tect them in blood or urine sam­ples. Hence the al­lure for ath­letes. US ge­neti­cist Sweeney, who had raised the red flag back in 2004 when such treat­ments were en­ter­ing clin­i­cal tri­als, had ath­letes begging him to be his guinea pigs dur­ing the Bei­jing Olympics. “No mat­ter what I say to them about gene ther­apy] be­ing dan­ger­ous and ex­per­i­men­tal, it doesn’t slow them down—they just keep push­ing, say­ing, ‘I want to be the guinea pig, I want to the first per­son you try this on,’” Sweeney told Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can.

In 2006, Ger­man ath­let­ics coach Thomas Spring­stein tried to buy Re­poxy­gen, a gene ther­apy drug de­vel­oped by an Eng­land-based phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany to treat anaemia. This drug pro­duces erythropoietin, or epo, that cy­clist Lance Arm­strong was found to in­fuse in his blood to boost red blood cell pro­duc­tion.

Gene trans­fer is risky as the body’s im­mune sys­tem can over­re­act. In ex­treme cases it can cause death. In early tri­als some chil­dren later de­vel­oped leukaemia.

Al­though no one has the ev­i­dence of an ath­lete in­dulging in gene dop­ing, it is a mat­ter of time when ath­letes get ac­cess to the tech­nol­ogy. “Gene dop­ing in the strict sense of the ex­pres­sion is not a threat at the mo­ment but it may be­come re­al­ity in the com­ing decades due to ex­tra­or­di­nary ad­vances in gene de­liv­ery, tar­get­ing, in­sert­ing and edit­ing tech­nolo­gies,” says US ge­neti­cist Claude Bouchard. Over 2,000 tri­als have hap­pened in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, and China and Euro­pean Union have ap­proved gene ther­apy for a few dis­eases.

Should the tech­nol­ogy be de­nied to ath­letes even if proven safe and ben­e­fi­cial for healthy peo­ple? Sweeney’s work on strength­en­ing mus­cles in mice shows the “ear­lier you in­ter­vene, the bet­ter off you’re go­ing to be when you get old.”

Some have even ar­gued that it can pro­vide a level play­ing field in sports. In fu­ture we could be watch­ing ge­net­i­cally en­hanced Olympians.

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