August 13, 2008
More Doping Tests For 2008 Olympic Games

Emily Singer in Technology Review reports on more extensive uses of tests to detect banned treatments for athletic enhancement.

In an attempt to catch those athletes out, the Olympic antidoping lab has dramatically stepped up testing compared with previous games, conducting 1,000 more tests than in Athens in 2004 and double the number at the Sydney games in 2000. That increase comes largely from greater numbers of tests per sample, rather than from an increase in the number of samples collected.

Note the greater number of tests per sample. That probably reflects the use of gene chips and other miniaturization of biological testing devices. That miniaturization results in a level of automation, precision, and cost reduction that enables such a large number of tests on a single sample. So this is not so much a report on increased vigilance as increased ability to be vigilant.

The sports organizations are trying to stay ahead of the development of performance enhancement drugs.

The IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) are also developing new testing techniques, although they won't give details about any new tests that they plan to run at this year's Olympics. "We need the elements of secrecy to try to be ahead of the game," says Catlin. This secrecy won WADA a dramatic victory at the Tour de France last month. Its drug-testing lab caught several cyclists using a longer-lasting form of EPO called CERA. Soon after the athletes were caught, it was revealed that the agency had been working with Swiss drugmaker Roche to develop a test to detect CERA while the drug was still being tested by the U.S. pharmaceutical company Amgen.

I expect some future performance enhancement treatments will be harder to detect. As we learn how exercise causes the body to grow bigger muscles, more vasculature, and other changes that enhance performance we will also learn many more ways to intervene. Some of these ways will so closely mimic what exercise normally does to the body that it will be hard to tell them apart from exercise. Already recent advances have identified two compounds that mimic the effects of exercise. Many more will be found.

Attempts to regulate enhancement of athletes will run up against even tougher obstacles in the future. First off, genetic engineering to enhance offspring will put the earliest intervention point for athletic enhancement to before birth. Will some people be banned from athletic competition because they were genetically engineered? Some of them will be hard to detect unless their genetic sequences are compared against that of both parents.

Genetic enhancement after birth will become common as well. Parents will seek to remedy health and other deficiencies in their children by getting them gene therapies and stem cell therapies as advances make more forms of enhancement possible. Genetic "Wild type" humans will some day be the exception.

The identification of all the genetic variants that enhance athletic performance will show that Olympic athletes are, for the most part, lucky winners in a sort of genetic lottery. While their training helped them get to the Olympics their fortunate genetic endowments will show that most people do not have the genetic profiles needed to compete at the Olympic level. Some will find this unfair and will argue that everyone should be allowed to get the same genetic advances added to their bodies after birth so that they too can compete at the highest level. How will this debate turn? I expect the proponents of enhancement will eventually win the debate and sports competitions between enhanced humans will become more common than competitions between wild type humans.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 August 13 09:37 PM  Biotech Athletics

HellKaiserRyo said at August 15, 2008 12:10 AM:

"Genetic enhancement after birth will become common as well. Parents will seek to remedy health and other deficiencies in their children by getting them gene therapies and stem cell therapies as advances make more forms of enhancement possible. Genetic "Wild type" humans will some day be the exception."

Well, if that will happen soon, why are you worrying about the effects of third world immigration?

Randall Parker said at August 15, 2008 5:33 PM:


I didn't say it will happen soon. Let us talk time lines.

First, we have to discover what lots of genetic variations mean, especially ones related to intelligence and other cognitive traits. Say that takes 10 years. Maybe it'll only take till 2015. Not sure because at some point the discoveries will become a deluge. But I lean toward a longer period because most genetic variants that influence IQ make very small contributions. This makes them harder to filter out of the background noise of orders of magnitude more genetic variants that play no role in creating cognitive differences.

Next, the information has to get used. Initially that means embryo selection with IVF. Trying to alter genes in eggs, sperm, and embryos with gene therapy will be too difficult for the next 10 years at least. So what percentage of births will done via IVF 10 years from now? 1%? 10%? Doesn't seem like a lot.

The selection of embryos in the first wave will only allow choosing among a small number of embryos. Enough to boost IQ of those kids 5 to 15 points probably. But those kids won't be a large fraction of all kids getting born.

Then we have to wait 20 years for that first wave to grow up and make an impact. We'll be going down before then. We might fall in intellectual ability for the next 30 years.

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