PtG Article 07.04.2006

Work on genetic doping test has begun

Work has begun on a test that can detect if athletes have used genetic doping to augment the body's own production of EPO. Funded by WADA, James Rupert of University of British Columbia in Canada and Australian scientist Robin Parisotto aim to have a prototype test ready within three years.

EPO is a naturally occurring hormone involved in producing blood cells. Gene doping means that extra copies of the EPO-producing gene are transferred directly into cells. That increases an athlete's ability to produce more EPO and thereby have more oxygen delivered to the muscles which will increase performance.

Previously Robin Parisotto was employed by the Australian Institute for Sport, and in the run up to the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 he was instrumental in developing a test that can detect the use of synthetic EPO.

Earlier this year, Robin Parisotto published a fascinating and easily accessible account of that process in a book called "Blood Sports. The inside dope on drugs in sport". In the book he also addresses the prospects of genetic doping and how to deal with it.

"One of the first applications of gene technology was 'recombinant drugs' - that is drugs that have been developed from combining fragments of DNA from different organisms. Fortunately, the technology to detect future recombinant-based doping practices is already at hand," Robin Parisotto explains in his book.

The technology is known as 'micro-array DNA analysis' and it provides a genetic map or footprint of human gene activity. Gene maps reveal which genes are being expressed and to what extent. For example, using EPO would "switch on" many of the genes associated with the production of red blood cells, and a transfusion would stop red blood cells being produced, thus switching those same genes off.

"A cast of genes have been identified that show large levels of expression (and under-expression) in response to injections of EPO. Importantly, these changes have not been confused with any normal physiological activity," writes Robin Parisotto.

According to a press release from University of British Columbia, the new test will measure gene activity and distinguish between effects of naturally occuring levels of EPO and those caused by gene therapy.

The hope is that unscrupulous doctors, athletes and coaches are going to think twice before experimenting with EPO gene doping if they know that a text exists that can catch it.

It is high time then. As Play the Game reported a few months back, a court case against a German coach raised fears that gene doping is already a reality. In court e-mails from the coach to a doctor was read out, and in one e-mail the coach asked for advice on how to obtain Repoxygen which is a drug that uses genetic technology to raise the body's level of EPO.

Read previous article about genetic doping:

Fears that gene doping is a reality