Is 'Gene Doping' the Next Olympic Threat?

In this age of the doping athlete, even the least cynical fan of the Summer Olympics probably can't help but wonder how many of the competitors are juiced. Last week, seven top Russian athletes were provisionally suspended after being caught in what one World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) official called a "systematic doping" scandal. Officials are taking unprecedented steps to keep these Olympics clean: over the next two weeks, there'll be some 4,500 tests for banned substances, the most ever. But ridding the Games of illicit performance enhancers is a Sisyphean task, and the job promises to get even more daunting with the advent of "gene doping." The newest—and perhaps most troubling—trend in the world of athletic enhancement, gene doping involves modifying an athlete's DNA, or having them inject or inhale foreign DNA, to make them bigger, stronger and faster. It's harder to detect than most drugs, which makes it all the more desired by cheaters looking to prosper.

Could this be the first Olympics in which athletes are discovered altering their own DNA? "It would not surprise me at all if this were to occur," says Dr. Ted Friedmann, a leading authority on gene therapy and director of the Center for Molecular Genetics at the University of California, San Diego's School of Medicine. Friedmann, who in 2006 was named president of the American Society of Gene Therapy, is working closely in his lab with WADA, which was founded in 2000, to find ways to detect gene doping and, ideally, prevent it from becoming rampant.

With gene doping, a person's genetic makeup is actually changed by injecting genes into muscle or bone cells, creating proteins that then enter the tissue or blood. If it all sounds futuristic, it isn't. A German television report on the availability of gene doping in China, which aired just a few days before the Olympics, stunned anti-doping experts. In the documentary by ARD television, a reporter posing as an American swimming coach met with a doctor who is the head of the gene-therapy department of an unnamed Chinese hospital. The hidden-camera report shows the Chinese doctor, with his face blurred, offering gene-therapy treatment to the undercover reporter in return for $24,000. The reporter tells the doctor he's seeking stem-cell treatment for one of his swimmers. "Yes. We have no experience with athletes here, but the treatment is safe and we can help you," the doctor replies (his answer was translated by the news program). "It strengthens lung function and stem cells go into the bloodstream and reach the organs. It takes two weeks. I recommend four intravenous injections—40 million stem cells or double that, the more the better. We also use human growth hormones, but you have to be careful because they are on the doping list," the Chinese doctor says. Friedmann, who was interviewed by the German TV crew for the report, says he wasn't surprised by the discovery. "I don't know how it was arranged, or what level of hospital this was, but it supports the idea that the world of athletics is very aware of gene doping and already pursuing it," the scientist says.

In another case dating back two years, a German trainer named Thomas Springsteen was allegedly found to be looking on the Internet for a source of material for a sophisticated genetic procedure. According to Friedmann, Springsteen was apparently attempting to get Repoxygen, a virus containing a gene that, when put into tissue, can in principle increase the level of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that activates bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. EPO is well known to many because it has been used as a performance enhancer by cyclists and other endurance athletes.

The arrival of gene doping can be traced directly to the cracking of the human genome and the emergence of gene therapy, which is used to treat a variety of diseases including cancer. According to Friedmann, WADA has established a research program that plans to design new tests for gene doping, based on technologies developed around the Human Genome Project. Historically, to discover genetic changes it was necessary to test the muscle or bone that had undergone the change. But after taking a close look at this in the lab, Friedmann believes there are effective ways of testing tissue, blood or urine to see if the body has been genetically altered. "There are interesting preliminary results, but I can't expand on that," Friedmann says. Just how soon this research will translate into a marketplace-ready test for gene doping is anyone's guess. There is no timeline because there are so many different genes involved. "This idea still needs to prove itself," Friedmann says. "But we're all encouraged by the results, and WADA very much wants to be ahead of the curve on this and has funded a dozen or more labs on gene doping."

Of course, the issue of genetics is always attended by a variety of ethical questions, especially when mixed with the questions of athletes and cheating. It makes for inevitable quandaries. For example, as gene therapy becomes more commonplace in medical treatment, many athletes will undergo such procedures legitimately, and that will show up on any test. Friedmann says these athletes should be allowed to apply for an exemption. "This is all very subjective, but the hope is that it will be a fair process that will allow the athlete who has had gene therapy for legitimate reasons to state his or her purpose for it," he says. "The sporting authorities can then either accept or reject it."

As these Olympics continue, the more "traditional" ways of cheating through doping are still what concern Olympics officials most. But gene doping is looming on the horizon. Because it is so new and complicated, it still poses great risks: a handful of patients who have undergone gene therapy for diseases like leukemia have died. So Friedmann insists that sporting authorities must err on the side of caution. "If gene doping is happening already, as we suspect, it's being done unethically and with immature technology, and that makes it inherently very dangerous," Friedmann says. "Most of the information is already published and in the medical literature, the opportunity is there, there is the pressure on these athletes to perform, and of course so much money is potentially involved. Few of us would be shocked if something were going on at these Olympics. But whether anything is discovered during these next few weeks remains to be seen." Friedmann hopes the research he's doing now will lead to such discoveries at future Games.

Join the Discussion