Genetic 'doping' imminent problem for athletes, experts say

Friday, February 11th 2005, 6:29 pm
By: News On 6

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ The 2008 Olympics are still a long way away but worries are already growing about whether it will become the first genetically enhanced competition in the crown jewel of international amateur sports.

Dr. Thomas Friedmann, a top adviser to the World Anti-Doping Agency, said the arrival of so-called ``gene doping'' to enhance performance is ``inevitable.''

``The question, of course, is how genetic technology can be used to push the performance of athletes, and at what point does that kind of manipulation cease to be sport and become just an exercise in biotechnology,'' Friedmann said.

Gene doping involves transferring genes directly into human cells to blend into an athlete's own DNA in order to enhance muscle growth and increase strength or endurance.

Unlike steroids or drugs, the added genes would not be detectable, although Friedmann said the resulting changes in an athlete's body could show that doping had occurred.

But technology typically moves faster than ways to regulate it, raising concerns among doctors, lawyers, trainers and athletes who fear gene doping could become the next major sports scandal after the controversy over steroid use this past year.

Friedmann was part of a forum Thursday at Portland State University to discuss those concerns and help raise awareness about the threat of gene doping.

Max Mehlman, a professor of biomedical ethics at Case Western Reserve University, said every leap in biotechnology makes it harder to prevent athletes from taking advantage of it.

``These new techniques are likely to be far more powerful and immediate and sophisticated,'' Mehlman said.

``The question is, can we prevent that? And in order to be able to prevent it we have to tell when it has happened, we have to be able to detect it, and then we have to have a way of stopping people from making genetic modifications,'' he said.

Mari Holden, a silver medalist in women's cycling at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, said advances in testing and enforcement have not kept pace, putting ``clean'' athletes under even more pressure to compete fairly.

Money also is a problem because its influence on professional sports is increasingly being felt in amateur athletics, she said.

``Obviously, money is a big deal. And the more money you have in sports, the more people are going to be willing to try and take shortcuts because they have teams relying on them, they have sponsors, they have families depending on their income,'' Holden said.

``Maybe that's one reason why you're not seeing as much doping on the amateur level as you are on the professional level. But I think that money is always a huge problem when you're looking at doping.''

Friedmann, director of gene therapy at UC San Diego, said that gene transfers in humans are still in the experimental stage as doctors explore the potential for treating various diseases, including diabetes and muscular dystrophy.

Using it to enhance athletic performance is dangerous, at this point, he warned.

``The technology is far too immature to apply to anything other than dire disease,'' Friedmann said. ``We know, of course, that won't deter the bad guys. They're not interested in safety.''

But he said the techniques for gene manipulation have become simplified and widespread enough so that a trained college biology student could perform gene transfers.

``It's simply too easy, too inexpensive to avoid and it will be used,'' Friedmann said.