October 28, 2002
Anti-Doping Agencies Versus Athletes And Biotech

Advances in biotechnology are going to make it harder to detect new ways to enhance athletic performance:

Following another conference in October, the U.S. Anti Doping Agency announced it had a urine-based test for the use of recombinant erythropoietin, also known as EPO, that would allow for extensive out-of-competition testing.

Arne Ljunggvist, chairman of WADA's health, medical and research committee, said he expected to have tests in place by the 2004 Olympics for many more kinds of oxygen downloaders, which boost the volume or increase the efficiency of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the blood.

"We're getting the tests before the products are out there," said Frank Shorter, chairman of the board of the U.S. Anti Doping Agency.

While the World Anti-Doping Agency and USADA officials sound confident in this article about their ability to stay ahead in their ability to detect new techniques for athletic performance enhancement the job of detection is going to become increasingly difficult. story Blood and urine testing will not be able to detect many of the types of gene therapy that will be developed for athletes.

One future detection technique will be to take tissue samples from various locations on an athlete, have the DNA in those samples sequenced, and verify that the athlete has the same single known DNA sequence at all the tested locations. Then analyse (using knowledge that scientists do not yet have but will in a decade or two) the genetic athletic potential of each athlete. With that knowledge analyse an athlete's performance and look for signs that athletes are exceeding their genetic potential. The problem with that approach is that the genetic potential is affected by accidential influences during development that could make some organ bigger or smaller or otherwise different than the genes alone would normally expect to make it. Still, variations above expected genetic limits would provide reason to look at an athlete more closely.

When gene therapies for athletic performance enhancement become available will it be possible to find positive proof against a suspected beneficiary of a prohibited gene therapy? If one knows exactly where the gene therapy must have been delivered then a biopsy if the tissue could be taken and a genetic analysis could be performed on the biopsy. That sounds easy enough in theory but there are practical complications that may make that very difficult. The first complication is that many locations that may undergo gene therapy will be deep inside a person's body. Athletes are going to be understandably reluctant to have needles stuck deep into them to retrieve a tissue sample.

Even if it becomes possible to go fishing for tissue samples deep in a person's body its still not going to be easy to find tissue that provides the proof that the athlete is benefitting from gene therapy. The next complication here is that some gene therapies may need to modify only a very small fraction of the cells in an organ in order to provide an athletic enhancement. Worse yet, a gene therapy could be delivered to some other part of the body in order to provide an unsuspected supplemental location to enhance some organ's functionality. Imagine issue placed in leg veins or along the intestines in order to provide a larger capacity to make a hormone that increases athletic performance. How would one know where to go looking? It could be like finding a needle in a haystack.

One way to try to narrow a search to find cells in an athlete's body which have undergone gene therapy would be to implant mini-sensors at various locations in the body and then have the athlete exercise while the sensors are being monitored. A distributed set of sensors might be able to detect an unexpected gradient of hormone or waste product concentrations. For instance, a sensor in a vein returning blood from the lower body might detect higher concentrations of a hormone than are found in an artery headed for the extremities.

But what is the point of all these games? The article above quotes Jon Entine to the effect that the prohibited pharmaceutical interventions are levelling the playing field between those who are lucky to have genes that are great for athletics and those who are not so lucky. There is some merit in his argument. As it stands now most types of sports at the Olympic level amounts to a competition between those at the genetic extreme in various combinations of abilities. While a willingness to devote a lot of effort to training was essential for the top Olympic athletes most people would never have a chance of reaching the Olympics becaues they just don't have a sufficiently favorable combination of genetic variations.

Olympic sports officials and officials on some other types of sports can ban the use of pharmaceuticals and of gene therapy to increase performance. For some types of enhancements the sports organizations will find methods to detect the enhancements at least some of the time. But in the longer term atttempts to enforce these sorts of prohibitions will run up against an even greater challenge: children will be born who have had their genes changed before or shortly after conception. How will these sorts of modifications be detected? If they are detected will the exclusion of such people from various sports competitions be considered acceptable? My expectation is that if amateur sports organizations attempt to practice such exclusion then new amateur sports organizations will form to allow the genetically enhanced to compete with each other. The public wil tune in and attend the competitions of the genetically enhanced. In this view the World Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency are engaged in a rearguard fight to extend the twilight of the old regime of the genetically lucky few who compete only against each other.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2002 October 28 12:04 AM  Biotech Athletics

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