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Should Fans Fret That Olympians Are Fiddling with Their Genes?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The Summer Olympics have finally begun! Time to celebrate the extraordinary talent, fortitude and grace of athletes representing the world’s diverse nations, from Iceland to Chile. And time to wonder how many competitors are ingesting performance-enhancing substances.

When I started writing about science in the early 1980s, we worried whether athletes were amped up on amphetamines or steroids. Kid stuff. Now Olympics officials fear that some contestants may be boosting their strength, speed and endurance by fiddling with the core of their biological being, the genome.

Since the late 1990s, researchers have shown that, by inserting genes into mice and other animals, they can swell the animals’ muscle mass, help cells repair themselves faster and boost the production of oxygen-toting red blood cells. The genes can be injected directly into the muscles of the target animal or slipped into the animal’s own DNA by means of viruses.

One pioneer of this research is University of Pennsylvania geneticist H. Lee Sweeney, who described his work in Scientific American in 2004. In the late 1990s, he inserted the so-called IGF-1 (for insulin growth factor) into mice, boosting their strength by as much as 27 percent. Sweeney and other researchers hope that these sorts of gene therapies can benefit the elderly, patients suffering from muscular dystrophy and even astronauts who lose muscle mass in a zero-gravity environment.

Naturally, athletes—after reading media reports about “Schwarzenegger mice”–became interested in gene therapies too. Ever since his work was first publicized, jocks have been begging Sweeney to test gene therapy on them. He always turns them away, but he predicts that athletes may eventually find someone who will administer gene therapy to them, just as they have found suppliers for steroids and other illegal performance-enhancers. In principle, gene therapy can be aimed at specific targets, such as fast-twitch or slow-twitch muscle cells, to benefit specific athletes, say, a shot-putter, weight-lifter, sprinter or high-jumper.

The World Anti-Doping Agency, which advises the Olympics on cheating, fears that gene therapy would be extremely difficult to detect with conventional blood tests, because neither the novel gene, its viral carrier nor the proteins generated by the gene show up in blood or urine tests. The only way to test for gene doping would be to carry out muscle biopsies, a step that, needless to say, many athletes would resist, because it calls for removing a chunk, albeit tiny, of muscle.

So how concerned should we be that medalists of this summer’s Olympics may be genetic cheats? Not very, because gene therapy for humans always fallen far short of its hype. Just two decades ago, proponents were predicting that gene therapy would soon eliminate many diseases, from cystic fibrosis to early-onset breast cancer, traceable to a defective gene. Some enthusiasts even foresaw the advent of genetically engineered “designer babies” who would grow up to be smarter than Nobel laureates and more athletic than Olympians.

Needless to say, these scenarios never quite materialized. Yes, China approved a gene therapy for cancer in 2004, and Europe may soon permit commercialization of a therapy for a disease that renders victims incapable of metabolizing fat, according to a recent report in Nature. But in the U.S., where researchers have carried out more than 1,000 clinical trials of gene therapy, not a single one has been approved for sale. In fact, U.S. researchers had to scale back their ambitions after several widely publicized deaths of patients enrolled in trials, notably Jesse Gelsinger in 1999.

Gene therapy can provoke a dangerous response from the body’s immune system, and viruses used to introduce genes into the body can cause cancer. For these reasons, the National Institutes of Health warns that “the technique remains risky and is still under study to make sure that it will be safe and effective.”

There may be a few wannabe Olympians out there who risk their careers, health and lives by experimenting with unproven gene doping. But I doubt that genetic engineering will have a significant impact on the Olympics anytime soon. When it does, that should, perhaps, be cause for celebration, because it would mean that gene therapy is finally beginning to fulfill its enormous potential.

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Addendum: This post is adapted from a column originally published in BBC Knowledge.


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. julianpenrod 10:17 pm 07/28/2012

    A number of points. Some extremely important.
    Consider the very import of the article, whether people, are at least the groups called “fans”, should care if athletes, or “athletes” should be allowed to use every means, from equipment to bio-engineering, to win. Special swinsuits, aerodynamic outfits, sophisticated sunning shows, special diets, steroids, genes to stimulate unnatural tissue growth. “Athletics” used to be infused with the idea of personal ability, demonstrating excellence in sport. Non- modified individuals can show that. Even if a clandestine emphasis is placed on those who want the excitement of betting on an athletic event, competition will exist if athletes do not use artificial means.
    But all that is no longer of interest for many. They no longer are interested in excellence and competition. They are bored and jaded with the world. They want a new record evey second! No longer do they even care if someone wins or loses, it’s if they win by more points than the last person who won! That’s part of what’s destroying the economy, the fact that no longer do corporations want excellent profits, their profits must increase every year, more than that, the rate at which profits increase must also increase, and the rate at which the rate of profits increase, must also increase! Such a fixation fits quite neatly with creating a system on non- existent money, which makes up at least 15% of the economy currently, that can be expanded to infinity! Likewise, the principle of personal drive and achievement has been lost among those who agree with the central sentiment of John Horgan’s article. They no longer care if they see people showing what people can do, they just want to see biomechanical constructs that look human setting new records every day!
    One of the first demonstrations, Casey Martin and his “famous” golf cart. Claiming a defeat in his leg, he demanded to be allowed to ride a golf cart around tournaments. Eveyone else walked, it was considered an eminent choice to give no one that advantage on energy. Martin painted himself a victim of disability. Defenders called those who questioned his insistence everything from unreasonable to bigoted. He got what he demanded. Follow that, now, with Oscar Pistorius who is clainming he was born without a tibia, requiring him to have prosthetic legs and he is demanding now to be allowed to run with these enhanced limbs in the Olympics.
    No wonder Horgan addressed his article to “fans”, since they seem the only ones who would countenance that kind of skullduggery. No interest in the human side, just seeing things with heads, two arms and two legs putting the shot 200 miles away. Natalie Wolchover, commenting on Huffington Post about Oscar Pistorius gave the endorsement, no less frightening than Horgan’s at the end of this article, that the answer to people using enhanced means of winning sports is not to return to requiring sports to involve the individual alone but, rather, for everyone, even those not requiring enhancement, to place their hopes in “more technology”! How fitting in an age when “democracy” is being redefined to a ruthless militaristic rapist, by redefining torture, human rights and the Constitution. Like Horgan wants to redefine “athlete”.
    A sidelight. Horgan mentions, too, the supposedly unapproved process of injecting tissue with genes to produce more tissue. Horgan claims the process hasn’t been used, but consider such things as Lance Armstrong’s telling development of cancer in precisely the area where he would carry out injections to criminally increase muscle mass! In the days when human growth hormone was acknowledged as about the strongest such agent, it looked very much like Armstrong’s condition was the result of constant p[hysical insult to the area and the presence of a powerful hormone. The case seems sturdier now, Armstrong appears to have been injecting himself with genes in his groin to build more tissue. But cancer is just the uncontrolled growth of tissue! His condition seems an indictment. And for those who would challenge it, consider the case of Eric Shanleau, currently competing in his second Olympics in swimming, a sport also benefiting from strong legs. He, too, has testicular cancer.

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  2. 2. geojellyroll 10:21 pm 07/28/2012

    I don’t care.

    just a’s irrelevent what american athletes or what the USA legislates. Genetic masipulation will be spearheaded by China and India.

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  3. 3. MARCHER 8:09 pm 07/30/2012


    The point of the article is that even if gene manipulation was currently in use, it would not give athletes the desired result.

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  4. 4. ABlack 11:55 am 12/13/2012

    naturally inherited good genes are probably just as unfair as man made ones.

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