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Genetically engineered athletes are just around the corner

Australian scientist Robin Parisotto developed a groundbreaking EPO test in the run-up to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Now he has begun work on a test that can discover if athletes have used genetic doping to augment their body’s production of EPO. In this excerpt from his recent book, Blood Sports, Parisotto describes what the world of sport may look like if genetic doping is allowed to go ahead.

The prospect of a genetically engineered athlete is very real.

In an April 2004 report, it was claimed that research laboratories in the former Soviet Union were routinely asked to provide genetic methods to enhance performance. Already one clinic in Russia is advertising stem cell therapies to treat muscular dystrophy.

There would be plenty of athletes prepared to pay big money for a new set of muscles! And one day they won’t even have to pay big money; most genetic technology will soon be within the capabilities of any graduate scientist in molecular biology.

Sports in size XL
In this brave new world, it won’t just be the athletes who will be different. Bigger, stronger, faster and taller sports people will  have consequences for sports infrastructure, sports equipment and sport rules and policies. What we now regard as middle- and long-distance races may one day become sprints.

Power and field sports will need to modify equipment with heavier javelins or discuses, or build larger stadiums, so that the throwing implements don’t end up in the crowd. Pitches, courts and fields would need to get bigger, goals smaller, and nets and hoops higher. More umpires will be needed, unless they too get doped up, in order to keep pace with the athletes.

Spotting enhancement in the genes
In the future, the most serious problem for anti-doping authorities will be in detecting genes that have been replaced or substituted.

It is difficult to foresee how genetic enhancement, whether at the embryonic stage or later in life, will ever be able to be detected if enhancement ’is in the genes’. It certainly seems unlikely, unless everyone’s gene map is publicly disclosed at birth. But access to indivdiual DNA information is a privacy issue with which society continues to grapple.

Human cloning could be easy to detect by apperance alone: an Ian Thorpe look-alike would be a give-away! But unless testers had access to animal gene maps, (the race horse) Phar Lap could be re-incarnated unbeknownst to the general public.

Little is done to find test for genetic doping
While genetic therapies and their impact on sport have been debated since 1960s, we are still to see any significant research aimed at developing methods to detect genetic doping techniques. It took 13 years for an EPO test. If the same delay applies to genetic cheats, the future is bleak.

Genetic doping will happen because society will allow it to happen. The history of drug development dictates that the perceived benefits of genetic technology will far outweigh any adverse effects. But if it ever reaches a point where a normal gene is regarded as a ’bad’ gene which needs to be enhanced then it’s hard to imagine a future for truly clean sport.

Unless innovative, non-invasive means of detecting gene transfer are developed, the future may be one of tissue-engineered supermen and women but the public might actually want to see the six-second 100-metre race Maurice Green (former record holder, at 9.79 seconds) once predicted in the New York Times - a race so fast you would have to watch it in slow motion on TV.

Or how about a javelin hurtling over 200 metresor high jump so high you’d have to watch the TV sideways? Will it be sport in the traditional sense?

Athletes want to be genetically enhanced
The unravelling of the human DNA, spectacularly symbolised during the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympic Games, was a prophetic sign of where sport is headed, and perhaps a warning sign to Beijing that the first genetically modified athletes may well turn up in 2008.

In the immediate future, ahtletes who seek to gain the competitive edge will not want to sit around and wait for science to debate and perfect genetic techniques.

Indeed, a 1995 survey revealed that of the 200 aspiring American Olympians who were asked if they would take a banned substance that would help them win all  competitions for five years but then result in death, more than half said they would.

With this sort of culture already pervading the athletic community, it will only be a matter of time before we see freaks of nature parading their artificial, genetically programmed bodies around the sporting field, endeavouring to win at all costs.


BLOOD SPORTS

This article is an excerpt from the book Blood Sports published by Hardie Grant Books in 2006.

The book is an exceptionally well-written account of the challenges Australian scientist Robin Parisotto faced when the IOC asked him to develop a test to detect the use of EPO by athletes.

In the book, Parisotto explains how doping works so the layman understands. He shows the dangers of EPO and takes the reader on a fascinating journey of the practicalities and problems involved in developing a reliable EPO test. The book also shows the reader how international anti-doping politics work and how Parisotto in the end was let down by the Austrialian government.

Parisotto has now begun work on a test that can detect if athletes have used genetic doping to augment the body’s own production of EPO.

See news story:
Work on genetic doping test has begun

 
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