• Gene Doping: Bane or Boon in the Sports World?

    Through the years, many athletes have resorted to sports doping, or the use of drugs to increase and enhance their physical and athletic performances. Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson, for instance shocked the world when he beat track star Carl Lewis in the 1988 Olympic 10m run. It was soon found out that Lewis did some sports doping before the competition–he used Stanozolol, a steroid related to the building of muscles.

    But while the use of drugs such as steroids and EPOs to enhance performance has become old news, technology and research have given athletes another method of improving their athletic abilities. This method of sports doping is difficult to trace and cannot be detected in blood or urine drug tests. It also lasts much longer than any performance-enhancing drug known to man today.

    Gene Doping and Its History

    Gene doping was born out of gene therapy, wherein genes (your DNA) are injected into your cells or biological tissues to treat diseases such as cancer, sickle cell anemia or muscular dystrophy. But while this is advantageous in the medical field, gene doping takes gene therapy a step further by introducing DNA into a healthy person’s cells for the sole purpose of enhancing his athletic prowess or performance.

    Experiments done by H. Lee Sweeney (a Physiology professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine) on mice, for instance, revealed that when Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1), a type of protein, interacted with the muscle cells, these cells began to grow. These experiments showed that the lab mice, which interacted with IGF-1, grew muscle mass up to 40 percent larger. Elderly mice also showed an increase in vigor and strength because of IGF-1.

    In addition, studies done by a group of scientists led by Ronald Evans of the Salk Institute in California, revealed that mice injected with DNA that coded a fat-burning protein called PPAR-δ consequently ran twice as fast as their litter mates. All these studies, of course sparked serious debates and issues on the possible use of gene therapy to enhance athletic performance.

    The Controversy Surrounding Gene Doping

    The controversy of using DNA for athletic performance came into light in 2001, when the International Olympic Community (IOC) held meetings to talk about the implications of gene therapy in the field of sports. Naturally, this was met with a fierce wagging of fingers among a lot of groups who questioned the ethical and moral results and basis of the misuse of DNA and genes. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the President’s Council on Bioethics (of the United States) met in 2001 and 2002, respectively, to discuss the ethics of using genetic technology in sports. This was followed by WADA’s ban on gene doping in the World Anti-Doping Code in 2004.

    But more than just a question on whether it is right or wrong, experts and those involved in the field of sports should take into consideration whether gene doping is actually safe. The protein erythropoietin (EPO) is often used as a cheat in sports to increase the production of red blood cells, which can boost an athlete’s performance, especially in endurance sports. But experiments done by researchers of gene therapy show that when genes that carried EPO was injected into monkeys, it resulted in either sever anemia or a deadly excess of red blood cells.

    Although medical advancements and technology are great for improving and even saving lives, the use of such advancements, like gene therapy, should be practiced with caution. It’s one thing to be taking, say multivitamins to help you maintain your health, and it’s another thing entirely to be injecting yourself with performance enhancing DNA just to build muscle.

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    Categories: DNA & Genetics

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