Experts warn gene doping in sport 'inevitable' as science advances
TORONTO - Gene therapy, still considered high risk and experimental in the context of medicine, will likely be the new frontier for doping in sport, experts warned Thursday in a scientific journal.
There are already signs some in sport have tried to explore its potential, they said. But how common those efforts are at this point is anyone's guess.
"Authoritatively, I think the only honest answer to say is nobody knows," lead author Dr. Theodore Friedmann said in an interview.
"But with the improvement in the gene therapy technology, the extension to sport is becoming more and more inevitable."
Gene doping is on the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances and methods.
Friedmann and two co-authors - one of whom works for WADA - sketched out the problems posed by this possible new form of cheating in a review article in the journal Science.
They warned of Internet marketing campaigns aimed at enticing athletes to try techniques that could endanger their lives.
"It's not ready for prime time because the technology isn't there to allow it," said Friedmann, who chairs WADA's gene doping expert group. Friedmann is the director of the gene therapy program at the University of California, San Diego.
"But we know in sport that that doesn't always rule the day and people use preliminary and incomplete science to do things. ... They take advantage of whatever technology they can."
Over the past couple of decades, science has made great strides in the field of genetics. The genomes - genetic blueprints - of humans and a range of other species have been fully sequenced.
And scientists have managed to pinpoint individual disease-causing genes. In fact, the gene that causes cystic fibrosis was identified in 1989 by scientists at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.
But progress in translating those findings into treatments and cures has been slow.
The few gene therapy treatments that seem to work - and are safe enough to undertake - are still in the early stages of their application. And often gene manipulation is shown to trigger unforeseen and unwanted side-effects.
For instance, gene therapy has been used to establish immune system function in some children who were born with an auto-immune disease that left them virtually defenceless. These are so-called "bubble children" - forced to live out their short lives enclosed in a sterile environment because they cannot fight off germs.
Friedmann said work done to reset their immune systems using gene therapy has allowed treated children to come out of their protective enclosures. But several of the children developed leukemia, triggered by the virus used to deliver the reparative gene into their systems.
And in animal research on a form of gene therapy meant to stimulate production of red blood cells, some of the monkeys used developed fatal anemia - an end which was directly opposite to what the therapy was meant to do.
"The body doesn't like to be perturbed," Friedmann said. "And you push in one place and other things will give in other places. Those other things may or may not be innocuous."
"In the context of (disease) therapy you tolerate that in the cause of doing good. But in the case of (healthy) young athletes, you can't tolerate doing harm with these kinds of manipulations."
But the authors fear the promises of athletic glory may prove too tempting for some athletes. They note a German coach, Thomas Springsteen, was discovered a few years ago trying to obtain Repoxygen, a gene delivery treatment that turns on the body's erythropoietin (EPO) production.
EPO triggers generations of red blood cells that carry oxygen through the body and is used by dopers in endurance sports such as cross-country skiing. But it can be detected in doping control, if testing is done sufficiently soon after an athlete injects it.
If gene therapy allowed athletes to essentially crank the dial on the amount of red blood cells they make without taking a drug, it may also allow them to foil anti-doping tests - at least for a time.
Friedmann said he believes science will be able to devise ways to detect gene doping, but he acknowledges it will be hard.
In the meantime, he and his colleagues warn sport needs to be on the lookout for this form of doping - even if it seems that the science isn't fully evolved.
"Whether it's ready or not is not really the point. The point is, is somebody going to do something foolish along these lines?" he noted.
"And I think the answer to that is 'probably.' But I have no reason to know whether it's going to happen in the Vancouver Games, or the London Games or whatever."