Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Gene Doping" - Risks behind the dehumanization of sport.

When High-glamour sporting medals and eye-popping multi-million-dollar contracts are at stake, athletes and coaches have been known to resort to drastic measures to strike gold. But as the metabolic-steroid era evolves amidst increased testing, policing and public hectoring, what other performance booster shall enter the ring? Friends, welcome the newest chip of the block - Gene-Doping!
Science is increasingly becoming humanity’s partner and handmaiden in the effort to enhance oneself, many forms of which are becoming more feasible, sought-after, and even justifiable in the quest for healthier, happier, and longer lives. Science has just added genetic manipulation to our enhancement tool kit.
Recently, the successful development of 'gene therapy' has provided the concepts, tools and opportunity for genetic modification of functions that affect normal human traits, which have been to some success, applied to alleviate diesease conditions. Frighteningly, Gene-therapy might now be also used for non-therapeutic purposes like gene-based "enhancement" of athletic performance. 
Indeed, some therapies that are being developed to help people with degenerative diseases and genetic defects live longer and more high-functioning lives might also be used to boost healthy bodies. These include treatments that regenerate muscle, increase its strength, and provides respite from ageing and

But Gene-thearpy is truly and factually in it's infancy, and results that have been tested in cell-lines or mouse-models are yet to be successfully and safely tested in human or at least non-human primate models (monkeys etc.), for adequate translation into humans; which as is understood would take its own time before a judgment could be pronounced.
For example, enhanced muscle function from the insulin like growth factor (IGF-1) or follistatin transgenes has already been demonstrated, and the celebrated lipid-modulator PPAR-delta has been known to enhance endurance performance in mice that overexpress the gene but studies in humans remain scarce, and there's no reason to believe that mice and humans would behave the same way!
In the age of internet, not surprisingly, these scientific studies are known in sport communities and are coming temptingly close to human doping. 
A 'dw-world' news-report implicates a German athletic coach in attempting to obtain a gene-transfer vector that induces expression of the erythropoietin gene.
A Chinese genetics lab reportedly offered gene-juicings before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Gnawing close at the doping-heels, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), put gene therapy on its list of no-no's back in 2004. Even as the race to discover new competitive edges gathers momentum, so does the race to detect them. Gene overexpression would likely produce broad metabolic, genetic, and proteomic changes which could be then tagged as a signature and used as a marker. New-age, high-throughput sequencing techniques, as are currently used to scan for developmental disorders and other genetic red flags, will likely be able to catch such changes too.
Although advertisements promoting products that promise to enhance athletic performance have pervaded the internet, recently it has become home for advertisements that claim to “alter muscle genes…by activating your genetic machinery”(-here), or that state “your genetic limitations are a thing of the past!” (-here) or “Finally, every bodybuilder can be genetically gifted!” (-here).
Gene-therapy and in this case -Doping could, at least in fantastic-theory could help us conjure images of a potential horror scenario of a hybrid-athlete with the speed of a cheetah, a jump  of a kangaroo and the strength of a gorilla painted by Australian scientist Robin Parisotto in his book Blood Sports, which is a funny, frightening yet enlightening history of drugs in sport.

The point of concern is that these treatments have so far only been able to produce “faster or stronger mice.” But that doesn’t mean somebody getting an Olympic medal, or scoring a goal at the World Cup Soccer, 2010, isn’t a rat.


* Science, Vol 327, 5 Feb, 2010, Gene Doping and Sport, .
* J. Appl. Physiol. 96, 1097, 2004, Viral expression of insulin-like growth factor-I enhances muscle
   hypertrophy in resistance-trained rats. 
* Cell, 134, 405, 2008, AMPK and PPARdelta agonists are exercise mimetics.
* Sci. Transl. Med. 1, 6ra15, 2009.


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