Monday, March 01, 2010

More on Gene Doping

Previously here at Pappillon, we discussed the trending topic of gene doping and its possible impact on modern sports. While gene doping has been a hot topic of discussion since WADA banned the practice in 2003 - a year before the human genome was decoded - there is still no evidence of an athlete successfully employing the practice to enhance performance illicitly. Some experts suspected that the 2008 Summer Olympics would be the so-called birth place of gene doping, and scientists meekly flagged a warning of a test to catch cheaters. While these tests remain elusive still today, media attention turned to the topic of gene doping once again during this year's Winter Olympics.

Remember our discussion of the experimental drugs GW1516 and AICAR - two orally active agents that genetically switch-on an endurance gene signature discovered in 2008 by Dr. Ronald Evans, a geneticist at the Salk Institude for Biological Studies in San Diego, California? Recently, journalist Ashley Fantz interviewed Dr. Evans for a CNN Health article, The Next Frontier in Athletic Doping - Genes. Here's what was reported:

"I got hundreds of phone calls from everywhere -- a lot of athletes wanting to get it," said Evans, whose research was intended to treat muscle wasting and obesity disorders.

He is accustomed to controversy. In 2005, he showed the world "Marathon Mouse," a rodent whose genes he tweaked so that it was resistant to weight gain and could run twice the normal distance of other mice.

"At first, I was bothered by the reaction," he said. "It's not what we might ideally want to think sport is, but the reality is athletes will do anything to perform better."

I don't know of any particular case where a person has gene doped but the technology is here. If there isn't a case I can point to today, there will be soon.
--Dr. Theodore Friedmann, World Anti-Doping Agency

Last year, Pierre Bordry, the head of France's anti-doping agency (Agence Francaise de Lutte contre le Dopage) told Le Monde that he was "convinced that two new products have been used during the Tour, two drugs that are not yet on the market."

CNN spoke with Bordry, who reiterated his belief, but did not respond when pressed to name those drugs.

There was no detection method for Aicar at the time of the 2009 Tour de France bicycle race, according to WADA spokesman Frederic Donze. If there has been a test developed since then, it's WADA' s policy not to reveal that, he said, adding that the French anti-doping agency has probably stored samples of the 2009 Tour for possible later re-analysis.

"I heard that Aicar had been used, but I have no idea if that's true," Evans said.

To read interviews like those with Evans, it would seem that Pappillon's initial commentary on gene doping is in alignment with some of the best minds in the field. And while no athlete has yet been proved to have gene-doped, it's crucial to ask now what can we do to catch any previous, current, or future gene-dopers? Unfortunately, the answer is complicated.

For the record, there is currently no way of detecting genetic doping. Some of the tests being engineered right now are aimed at finding immediate, direct evidence such as genetic virus fragments and telltale proteins. Looking ahead further, a test is envisioned that will identify the specific patterns of individual drugs, or unique gene expressions. At present, research on these tests is confined to animal studies.

Exceeding the importance of these trial tests though, is the fact that in order to see if a genetic change has occurred, a muscle biopsy must be taken. If you've never seen a biopsy being done I highly encourage you to watch the video below. The procedure is highly invasive, requiring an incision be made in the skin so a biopsy needle can then be deeply inserted within the muscle to remove tissue.

Another challenge is the fact that there would need to be comparable non-doped genetic codes on file for each athlete, which could seemingly evolve [Editor's Note: no pun intended.] into a "Gene Passport", similar to the UCI's Biological Passport used to detect signs of blood doping in cyclists. Right now, however, for genes, we've run ourselves in a circle!

What can we predict about the future of testing for gene doping, or doping in general for that matter? It seems like the fate of future testing will hinge on the debate over whether or not performing muscle biopsies on every athlete in every Olympic sport's anti-doping testing pool is both practical and ethical. While the procedure itself raises great concern for the inhumane treatment of athletes, the confidentiality and safety of the personal genetic coding of elite athletes raises major concerns. While Floyd Landis claims he's not involved, a French anti-doping lab was hacked and computer data altered in an attempt to manipulate evidence for an anti-doping tribunal - so the precedent exists for targeted attacks on athletes' personal medical data. Clearly a long road is ahead of us.

Nonetheless, so as not to conclude this article in such a manner as to leave you feeling despondent about the chance of winning the war on doping, I'll leave you with the refreshing remarks of Olivier Rabin, WADA science director:

"Anything you do to your body changes your body. Is there a perfect crime? Many investigators will tell you no."

[Editor's Note: Thanks to author PhDuane for his excellent contribution to Pappillon, which we know for a fact was written under trying circumstances. Please show your appreciation in the comments section, and you science-minded types should feel free to continue the discussion and either agree or disagree!]


  1. I volunteer to be a test subject. Get me some of those skinny genes. I'll express the results on the podium.

    On a serious note, where are these animal studies taking place? And what has been discovered thus far in regards to genetic doping detection?

  2. Jon, it's tough to say exactly where. We know that the International Olympics Committee alone has previously budgeted $2 million towards laboratories working on a test. The actually laboratories I could not name, but they would be globally scattered. Among the top of the list I would put University of California, where Theodore Friedmann, the head of WADA's gene doping expert panel, is director. I would say in the absence of a test, anything classified thus far as a discovery would be moot to anyone outside of genetic academia.


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