Scientists seek test to detect gene doping in athletes

i-d959a5c36591d8b4d233ee99073b34a0-8-9-7 GeneDoping.jpgThe first report that gene therapy could enhance muscle in a mouse model was published in 2004.

Since then, it has become of increasing concern that some unscrupulous athletes may consider gene therapy as a viable alternative to steroid injection (a term called gene doping) in the quest to enhance their athletic ability.

Gene doping, as defined by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), is "the non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or of the modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to improve athletic performance."

In the wake of recent Tour de France drug violations - and with the 2008 Olympics looming - the need to stay ahead of the game has never been more evident, says this University of Florida (UF) press release.

Scientists from the university are collaborating with national and global anti-doping organizations to develop a test that could detect evidence of "doped" DNA.

So what kind of genes would an athlete use for gene doping?

Several potential targets of gene doping have emerged, including the gene for erythropoietin, or EPO. A bioengineered version of the hormone, currently on the market, increases red blood cell production in patients with anemia and boosts oxygen delivery to the body. In athletes, this translates to enhanced stamina and a competitive edge.

But because synthetic hormones such as EPO are prohibited by WADA and readily detected through drug tests, performance-driven athletes have begun searching for stealthier and more powerful alternatives.

"The next variation of boosting red blood cell production is to actually inject the EPO gene itself, which would cause increases in red blood cells," said Richard Snyder, Ph.D., an assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at UF and director of UF's Center of Excellence for Regenerative Health Biotechnology. "So the idea is to develop a test that could detect the gene that's administered."

While a test for gene doping has yet to be developed, scientists can envision how it would work and the potential hurdles to overcome.

The researchers are faced with a myriad of uncertainties, such as which tissues in the body to sample and how to distinguish a "doped" gene from a naturally occurring form of the gene. Ultimately, the test will compare how many copies of the EPO gene are found in an athlete's body to levels found in the average person who has not been doping.

But I wondered-how big of a threat is gene doping to the world of competitive sports? Is it a real threat or just hype?

I scoured news sources and could not find any documented cases of athletes being busted for gene doping. This may not be so surprising considering the difficulty associated with detecting and proving this activity.

An article in the magazine True Play (a WADA publication) asserts knowledge that there is a growing level of interest in the sports world in the potential for gene doping, and that some scientists working on potential genetic cures for muscle diseases like muscular dystrophy or blood disorders are being approached by sports figures to inquire about the use of genes in sport. Theodore Friedmann M.D, who was interviewed in the article states "we also know that at least one prominent sport trainer in Germany has been accused of making attempts to obtain an experimental material designed to increase blood production in patients with cancer and kidney disease. His case is currently being investigated."

While the field of gene therapy has advanced over the years it is far from perfect. It typically uses a viral carrier to deliver genes into the body and misuse (or even therapeutic use) of the technology could have dangerous, or sometimes lethal, side effects.

Image from Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC


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For now, it's just hype, IMO. Gene therapy doesn't work well enough to really provide any competitive edge.

Hopefully someday, but not today.

Talk about gene doping is premature because gene therapy hasn't progressed far enough to be clinicially useful much less be casually abused by athletes.

As the technology for delivering therapeutic genes is developed it will probably become obvious how to detect potential gene doping. For example, if genes are delivered by a viral vector then maybe there would be a test to detect whether an athlete had been recently infected with the types of virus that are used clinically.

Doctors and researchers will want to be able to detect the presence of the genes so it's not as if gene detection is an issue that only sports bodies are interested in. I imagine that clinically developed gene therapy systems will have built in diagnostic markers to aid doctors in figuring out which cells incorporated the genes. I can't imagine a bicyclist reverse-engineering a gene delivery system to make it undetectable.

By Herb West (not verified) on 10 Aug 2007 #permalink

im very keen about research in gene therapy, someboby to help me??? im a student of bioinformatics.

By ayesha saeed (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink