The Straight Dope on Gene Doping

Professional sports are at the peak of their power.

Mar 14, 2005
Richard Gallagher(rgallagher@the-scientist.com)

"Another time in Ireland, a policeman stopped an ambulance at a roundabout to let our team coach (bus) pass. Someone could have been dying in the back of that ambulance and this guy stopped it to let us through!"Tony Cascarino1

Professional sports are at the peak of their power. Sports coverage commands more column inches – front page and back – and more airtime and bandwidth than politics, education, science, the arts, media, and religion. We can't seem to get enough of it; it has become the dominant force in our culture. Sports matter.

The rewards for athletic prowess are spectacular – preferential treatment ahead of emergency vehicles is a just a minor, if telling, ingredient in the indulgent feast. Little wonder then that some sportsmen and women – and the people who control them – will be tempted to go to any lengths to improve their performance.

The latest fad being touted in the world of professional sports is gene doping, basically somatic gene therapy aimed at improving athletic performance. In all likelihood it has not been tried – yet. The hurdles, to use a sports metaphor, are the same as those for other gene therapies, which have faced a struggle in the clinic. Still, one can easily imagine that the latest wave of performance-enhancing drugs, erythropoietin (EPO), human growth hormone (hGH) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) – all biologicals – could soon be administered in the form of genes. Gene doping would be more effective and more difficult to detect than injection of the gene product. So it's not merely scaremongering to suggest that genetically enhanced athletes might compete in the 2008 Olympics, if not earlier in the major professional sports leagues.

That's a horrifying prospect. Do I say that because of the purity of sport? Hardly. Sports look very different now than they did 10 years ago, let alone 50 years ago. Technology, medicine, nutrition, and psychology have changed everything from playing surfaces to clothing materials to fitness preparation to the use of dietary enhancements to machinations for the mind. What is and isn't within the "rules of the game" is arbitrary. If I can wear special soccer boots to swerve the ball, why can't I take steroids, as it's clear many baseball players have, or inject IGF-1 into my leg muscles? Taken in isolation it's hard to imagine why adjustments that enhance the spectacle wouldn't get the okay from the governing body of a sport.

We can't, however, consider things in isolation. Is there a danger associated with gene doping? Most definitely: A lifelong risk that far outstrips even the gamble of injection of drugs. Not only should gene doping be banned, it should be relentlessly tested for and mercilessly punished – even by imprisonment. The strongest precautionary principle must be applied to protect sportsmen and women.

Then there are the wider ethical concerns. We cannot allow experimental therapies that are being developed for serious diseases to be hijacked for trivial pursuits. And, as Nobelist George Wald wrote, "Recombinant DNA technology (genetic engineering) faces our society with problems unprecedented not only in the history of science, but of life on earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution." No form of entertainment can be the basis for such fundamental redesign.

Global surveillance of gene doping should be of the same order as vigilance against bioterrorism. Doping is at least as likely to be tried, more likely to be successful, and far more likely to, in the long term, degrade our dignity.