Genetically modified athletes could emerge as the next step in doping

THESSALONIKI – The doping of athletes as we know it could be history within a few years’ time, replaced by genetic «doping» that could create a race of super-athletes. Scientists have already created super-mice with unbelievable capabilities. Even bioethicists believe that, 20 years from now, genetic engineering will be widely used and perhaps just as widely accepted by a society that is thirsty for greater victories. If that happens, the Olympic Games could have three sections: the Classic Olympics, the Paralympics, and another for «genetically modified» athletes. Professor Constantine Triandafyllidis, of Thessaloniki University’s genetics and human genetics department, who coined the above theory, recently addressed a symposium on the «Medical Effects of Doping in Sport.» «Genetics today, using modern methods of DNA analysis, is having multiple effects on sport, providing the means to find out whether a champion’s performance is written into his or her DNA,» he said. Australian and Russian scientists have found that certain DNA strains are present in champion athletes but not in those with average performance or in the general population. Genetics can also explore the production of substances that are also naturally produced by the human body (that is synthetic biotechnological products that have the same or similar structure to naturally occurring human hormones such as testosterone or growth hormone) taken by athletes to improve their performance and which are not easily traced but can lead to serious, undesirable complications. Alternatively, the ability to modify the behavior of genes provides almost unlimited possibilities for improving athletic performances. «This could occur by giving athletes the appropriate substances of a small molecular weight that stimulate the genes to make the body produce more of these substances that ‘benefit’ their performance,» said Triandafyllidis. The professor described the strategies used in genetic therapy, paying particular attention to «somatic gene therapy.» He said genetically modified mice had been created that were able to run twice as far as normal, even without training. In another experiment, the scientist Lee Sweeney showed that by introducing a gene directly into the root of a muscle in the mouse’s foot and into the muscle mass of young mice, he increased their performance capacity by 27 percent. «In future, athletes might not only be training on the track or in gyms, but in gene laboratories where computers will choose and clone ‘miracle’ genes which, with various gene therapy methods, will be implanted in athletes. We are talking about a new age of genetic doping,» he said. As to whether there could be an effective way to monitor athletes for genetic engineering, Sweeney said that most likely this would be a registration of each athlete’s biomedical model, including pathology tests, to create a bioethical ID that could be used to test for any changes in metabolism, but noted that this would constitute an invasion of athletes’ privacy and was contrary to the legislation of many states, including that of Greece.