Fears that gene doping is a reality


Fears that gene doping has become a reality are emerging in Germany in connection with a court case against former athletics coach, Thomas Springstein. In court, the prosecutor submitted as evidence an e-mail that Springstein sent to a doctor for a Dutch speedskating team asking for instructions on how to buy Repoxygen - a substance which activates a gene that stimulates the body's own EPO production.

The use of Repoxygen is not the focus of the court case where Thomas Springstein is charged with supplying steroids to underage female athletes. But the accidental disclosure of Springstein's request for Repoxygen worry anti-doping experts greatly.

Werner Franke, a German cell biologist, calls the discovery the "crossing of the Rubicon."

"We have been expecting gene doping but not so soon. I don't know how they have it, but they do. It is a real advance in criminality," he told the Times newspaper in Britain.

Repoxygen was developed by Oxford Biomedica as a means to treat serious anaemia.

According to the company's own press release, Repoxygen allows the body to switch on a gene when it discovers low oxygen levels. This stimulates the body's own production of EPO - the agent that produces the red blood cells which carry oxygen to the muscles. When oxygen levels have been raised, Repoxygen makes the gene switch off "providing an exquisite control mechanism for the production of EPO in situ."

The twist is, however, that Oxford Biomedica never put Repoxygen into production because the company believed it could not compete in a market where EPO was so readily available.

Alan Kingsman, chief executive of Oxford Biomedica, says to the Times that Repoxygen remains in the fridge under close controls, and that he does not understand how it has got on to the black market. 

Side effect: Death
All the normal doping issues aside, a key problem with Repoxygen is that it has never been tested on humans but only on mice. And tests on mice showed that if the production of EPO did not stop as foreseen, the mice would die.

"If somebody has copied the substance and is not very careful with the regulation of the genes, then using the substance would be extremely dangerous," says Alan Kingsman of Oxford Biomedica to the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung.

Bengt Saltin who heads up the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center believes using Repoxygen will lead to death.

"When it comes into the body, it will turn on a process that can not be reversed. The blood will thicken and the person will die," Saltin says to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine.

The Swedish anti-doping expert finds it difficult to believe that the use of Repoxygen should be wide-spread. In his view, it is simply too dangerous for that.

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