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Gene Doping

Gene therapy for restoring muscle lost to age or disease is poised to enter the clinic, but athletes are eyeing it to enhance performance. The non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or of the modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to improve athletic performance is defined as Gene Doping by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

A complex ethical and philosophical issue is what defines gene doping, especially in the context of bioethical debates about human enhancement. Gene doping could involve the recreational use of gene therapies intended to treat muscle-wasting disorders. Many of these chemicals may be indistinguishable from their natural counterparts. In such cases, nothing unusual would enter the bloodstream so officials would detect nothing in a blood or urine test. For example, gene doping could be used to provide athletes a source of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that promotes the formation of red blood cells that is already widely abused in sports. Another candidate gene is Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) which partly controls the building and repair of muscles by stimulating the proliferation of satellite cells. See also Gene Doping article by Prof. H. Lee Sweeney.

The historical development of policy associated with gene doping began in 2001 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Medical Commission met to discuss the implications of gene therapy for sport. It was shortly followed by the WADA, which met in 2002 to discuss genetic enhancement. In 2003, WADA decided to include a prohibition of gene doping within their World Anti-Doping Code, which is formalized in its 2004 World Anti-Doping Code. In 2004, the Netherlands Centre for Doping Affairs (NeCeDo) and the WADA have organized a “Gene Doping” workshop. In addition, NeCeDo has published a report on gene doping as an inventory of the possible applications and risks of genetic manipulation in sports. Although there have been no documented cases of gene doping, the science of gene therapy and interest in the techniques by the sports community has risen to a level that makes gene doping inevitable.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has already asked scientists to help find ways to prevent gene therapy from becoming the newest means of doping. In December 2005, the World Anti-Doping Agency hosted its second landmark meeting on gene doping, which took place in Stockholm. At this meeting, the delegates drafted a declaration on gene doping which, for the first time, included a strong discouragement of the use of genetic testing for performance. Recently, German scientists from Tübingen and Mainz have developed a blood test that can reliably detect gene doping even after 56 days: "For the first time, a direct method is now available that uses conventional blood samples to detect doping via gene transfer". See news item: Gene Doping Detectable With a Simple Blood Test.

Analogous to gene doping, non-therapeutic applications of gene therapy can be envisaged in animals for the purpose of growth stimulation and improved meat production (see also Belgian Blue Bull), for example by growth hormone, myostatin and anabolic hormones. Gene doping to improve sport performance is not limited to humans, but has also interest in for example the sport of horse racing.

Video 3: Gene Doping - Part 1
(YouTube, 7:37)
Video 4: Gene Doping - Part 2
(YouTube, 5:15)