With so many athletes caught using banned performance-enhancing substances, one can only question the integrity of each of the competitors who joined the Summer Olympics. Last August, seven Russian athletes were caught and consequently suspended for being involved in an alleged “systematic doping” scandal.
Officials of the World Anti-Doping Agency or WADA are faced with the unenviable task of testing 4,500 illegal performance-enhancing drugs, the most numbered to date, to make the Olympics dope-free. Their job, however, will be an uphill climb with the introduction of “gene doping”, the modification of the athlete’s DNA.
Gene doping involves the absorption of foreign DNA into the athlete’s system thru injection or inhalation to greatly improve their performance by enhancing their size, strength and speed. Cause for greater concern is the fact that it will create more cheaters because the drug is virtually undetectable.
According to Dr. Ted Friedmann, a leading gene therapy authority and president of the American Society of Gene Therapy, that DNA altering substances could very well be the drug of choice for cheating athletes. Friedmann is working with WADA in his lab for an early detection system of gene doping to prevent it from spreading to dangerous proportions.
By injecting foreign DNA into the athlete’s muscular and skeletal system, his or her genetic structure is drastically altered by the creation and absorption of new proteins into the blood or tissues. If this sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, read on.
ARD, a German television, shook the anti-doping world with a documentary about gene doping facilities in China just days before the commencement of the Games. Recorded thru a hidden camera, a German correspondent posed as a U.S. swimming coach met with a Chinese doctor who offered gene modification for the sum of $24,000 per treatment. The doctor said that although research is still inconclusive, the gene-therapy treatment is safe and uses stem cells to strengthen the function of the lungs and other organs. Friedmann concludes that the video only confirms the suspicion that the athletic world is fully aware and in pursuit of gene doping.
Another case of genetic modification involved Thomas Springsteen, a German trainer who, two years ago, was allegedly caught surfing the internet in search of a virus known as Repoxygen. Repoxygen increases the body’s amount of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that triggers more red blood cell production in bone marrows. EPO is very popular among endurance athletes like swimmers and long-distance runners.
Although steroids and other “traditional” methods of cheating are still on top of Olympics officials’ watch list, gene doping is already casting its dark shadow on the gaming horizon. It is a new and unmapped terrain, researched with unethical and incomplete technology. Still in its infancy, some leukemia patients have died after going through gene therapy treatment. Human experimentation on this area can prove to be potentially lethal.
Although much information has been published in medical journals regarding the dangers of gene doping, the opportunity is very much available to athletes pushed to the edge by the pressure to win. Should sports authorities ever fall into error, they should at least fall on the side with lesser risks.