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Bracing for the next wave of sports cheats: Genetic dopers

Researchers work on pork at the "Cloning & Genetic Engineering" section of the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen, southern China March 3, 2010. Some experts say the world is on the cusp of a "golden age" of genomics, when a look at the DNA code will reveal your risk of cancer, diabetes or heart disease, and predict which drugs will work for you. Yet the $3-billion international Human Genome Project, whose first phase was completed a decade ago, has not led to a single blockbuster diagnosis or product. REUTERS/Bobby Yip


So far, those trying to convince athletes they know the secret of gene doping are selling the sizzle, not the steak.

But the steak is coming, and anti-doping experts are wrestling with the ethical dilemma of how to deal with athletes who are genetically modified or adept.

"I have no doubt there someone out there trying to peddle what they call genetic doping, but what they're marketing is B.S.," Thomas H. Murray, chairman of the ethics panel for the World Anti-Doping Agency said in an interview.

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"Either they don't have it or they're marketing constructs [theories]," said Murray. "I do know it's a technology that's harder than most scientists thought."

Gene doping is theorized to be the improvement of performance by modifying athletes – using something like an inactive virus to insert DNA into an athlete's body. Desirable sports characteristics occur, such as bigger muscles or greater endurance. It was included on WADA's list of prohibited methods of cheating in 2003, even though the anti-doping sleuths had no reliable test.

Three years later, former WADA president Dick Pound said a person "would have to be blind not to see that the next generation of doping will be genetic."

Genetic doping doesn't involve a foreign substance like drug doping. By the time of the London Games, there is still no test, but drug cops are wary. Methods for detection are in development.

"It's a mistake to think of it [genetic doping] as sticking a different bean into a beanbag. It's more like trying to manipulate a whole complex ecosystem. Change one thing and the system changes" said Murray, who is also senior research scholar and professor emeritus at the Hastings Center for bioethics at Garrison, N.Y."Will people claim to do it? Yes. Can they actually create an example of genetic doping? It's very unlikely."

Genes have a cachet all their own. Some people are born genetically adept at strength sports, some at endurance sports. Parents, trainers and corporate interests are on the genetic bandwagon. A website for Atlas Sports Genetics will, for $169 U.S., send parents a kit for a buccal smear from their child and a lab looks at the child's ACTN3 gene – the sports gene.

"It gives parents and coaches early information on their child's genetic predisposition for success in team or individual speed/power or endurance sports," the Atlas site says.

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Not everyone is born with the predisposition for a sport, but some might achieve it with gene doping,

Gene doping is derived from gene therapy, which is the treatment of human diseases caused by defects in genes.

The fact that there's no real test to uncover gene doping shouldn't stop WADA from outlawing it, Murray said. "There's plenty of precedent for banning something before there's an analytical way of proving it," he said. Intent to cheat -- "maybe someone sold you a gene doping system you believed would work" – is pernicious in itself.

Gene doping is not far removed from the concept of eugenics, says Bernard Dickens, professor emeritus of the University of Toronto faculty of law and the joint centre for bioethics.

In Second World War Germany, says Dickens, "it didn't come from sport but from human enhancement. The offspring were to carry on the superior master race, and it was illegal to marry 'inferior' races.

"What we're dealing with is breeding people who have qualities that are 'desirable'."

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The IOC and WADA first investigated gene doping because they knew athletes and trainers were curious about the technology being done in the medical field and how it might by an undetectable performance enhancer, said professor Andy Miah, director of the Creative Futures Institute and chair of Ethics and Emerging Technologies at the University of the West of Scotland.

"Genetically manufacturing sports champions has been foreseen by many science fiction texts… futuristic novels and classical texts such as Huxley's Brave New World," he wrote in a recent edition of the scholarly publication Genetics and Sport. Miah offers up an argument for continuing research and the application of gene doping in human athletes.

"Where human limits in performance are being approached – as would seem the case in some track and field events -- genetic manipulation may provide a route through which to distinguish and make the playing field more even, by removing variation brought about by the genetic lottery…"

He cautions that a moralistic backlash against genetically improved athletes would hold back research that could be helpful in other applications. It "should be cautioned against. Without supporting basic research into genetics and sport,  it will be difficult to foresee whether the application of gene transfer, or the creation of genetic tests could ever be useful in some way," Miah says.

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About the Author
Sports reporter

James Christie written sports for the Globe on staff since 1974, covering almost all beats and interviewed the big names from Joe DiMaggio, to Muhammad Ali, to Jim Brown to Wayne Gretzky. Also covered the 10 worst years in Toronto Maple Leafs hockey history. More


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