Is ‘genetic doping’ on its way?
MARATHON Mouse is the genetically engineered rodent in the US that can run 5km nonstop on a treadmill, compared with an average of 0.2km in its wild cousins. The emergence of such animals has led to fears that genetic enhancement will soon boost human sporting performance. Indeed, rumours have been circulating for several years of athletes succumbing to the temptation of "gene doping".
Meanwhile, anonymous accusers maintain that doping with more conventional drugs such as steroids still pervades elite sport, despite the huge cleanup effort made by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and the governing bodies of individual sports.
Such suspicions gained fresh momentum at the Olympics this week with the performance of China’s Ye Shiwen. The 16-year-old swimming prodigy completed the last 50m of her 400m medley faster than the men’s champion, leading a US coach to brand her performance "unbelievable". Yet she has passed four official drug tests in the past 12 months, including last week at the games.
Chatter in the sporting world about widespread cheating — for example, by athletes taking finely calibrated quantities of drugs during tightly controlled periods, perhaps with the addition of masking agents — contrasts with the view of officials from testing authorities that they are gaining ground in the never-ending race to keep ahead of the cheats.
"Olympic sports are cleaner in the London Games than ever before," says Prof Tony Moffat of London University’s School of Pharmacy, who has more than 40 years’ experience of sports doping analysis. "The new antidoping lab is the most sophisticated yet seen. They will detect any banned substance."
The £20m laboratory set up in GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK’s) research centre for the games, about 48km north of London, will be analysing 1,200 blood and 3,800 urine samples during the Olympics.
"Even if athletes believe they are taking a banned substance that cannot be detected, they should remember that their samples are frozen and stored for eight years," says Moffat. "They can be caught through retrospective analysis, if a test becomes available, and any Olympic titles removed."
As antidoping procedures grow more sophisticated in step with emerging drug misuse techniques, several tests are being used for the first time in London. The authorities are particularly pleased with improved methods of detecting human growth hormone (HGH). Synthetic HGH has recently been favoured by cheats who want to build muscle strength without risking the side effects of anabolic steroids.
Today, the authorities are on the lookout for new "designer steroids" created by underground chemists to avoid detection. The big buzz surrounds synthetic selective androgen receptor modulators, which have fewer side effects than conventional steroids. They are banned but are available on black-market websites.
Sports doping is a malign spin-off from medicines designed to treat diseases such as muscle wasting and anaemia. The primary aims of athletes who abuse such products is to build muscle strength and mass, improve energy metabolism and increase the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity.
Given the industry’s unwitting role in the development of sports doping, Wada was delighted last year when the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and the Biotechnology Industry Organisation agreed that member companies should pass on confidential data about drugs in clinical trials with potential for abuse in sport. GSK, for example, has told Wada about a pill in its pipeline that boosts red-blood-cell production.
Wada has been preparing since 2002 for the advent of gene doping — an abuse of gene therapy, a medical procedure in advanced clinical trials to treat a wide range of disorders from cystic fibrosis to blood disease. Athletes would be given extra copies of genes that make performance-enhancing proteins such as growth factors in their muscles. But despite spectacular results achieved with laboratory animals such as Marathon Mouse, scientists say difficulties would face anyone transferring the technology to humans.
"Although we know that some gene therapy experts have been approached by athletes or coaches and there are rumours of gene doping being used, there is no firm evidence for this," says Olivier Rabin, Wada’s chief scientist. According to UK Anti-Doping, such abuse could not at present be reliably detected. However, scientists hope to develop tests for added genes or the viruses used to carry them into human cells. Wada, meanwhile, is placing more emphasis on the "athlete biological passport" — an indirect catch-all method of detection. This establishes a long-term metabolic profile for each individual, with baseline levels of hormones and other protein bio-markers in their blood. Any sudden, performance-enhancing change that cannot be explained legitimately is regarded as evidence of doping, even if there is no direct detection of a banned substance.
Though still in their infancy, biological passports are already exposing cheats. At the same time, sports scientists are reminding people that improvements in performance should not in themselves be taken as evidence of cheating. The pool of potential competitors is expanding, particularly in countries where women are participating more actively. And science, technology and investment are improving infrastructure at elite level — nutrition, training facilities and equipment — which is pushing performance and creating new records everywhere.
Indeed, a new report by the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers warns of the dangers of "technology doping" and calls on sporting regulators to work with engineers to predict the consequences of new technologies. "Engineering has had an enormous and under-appreciated influence on sport over the past 100 years," says lead author Philippa Oldham. "Almost every sport, from athletics to cycling, has benefited from the introduction of new materials, techniques and tools."
Yet rumours of pharmaceutical and biological cheating will not go away. "Yes there are persistent myths about super-athletes being produced in hollowed-out volcanoes," jokes Graham Arthur of UK Anti-Doping. "But the overwhelming majority of athletes want to be clean." Even so, it is not certain that the technology that led to Marathon Mouse will remain permanently caged in the animal lab. "It is like an arms race," says Andy Parkinson, the CE of UK Anti-Doping. "We need to keep pressing and not think that we’ve tackled it (permanently) because I don’t think we ever will."
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited
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