Saturday, 17 March 2012

Genetic Doping in Sports

A recent development in genetic therapies has Sports Scientist and Olympic drug testing officials on edge. For the last few years scientist have been able to use genetics to increase the performance of rodents, by altering the genes in cell, or by changing the way the gene encodes the proteins for work in the body. This technology is now being thought to be used in athletes. The reason officials in sport are worried about this new form of performance enhancing process, is that unlike other forms such as human growth hormones or steroids, this process is very hard to detect as it both its structure and effects on the body are almost untraceable as they resemble normal bodily processes. Scientist believes they are now on the verge of being able to create a way to test athletes for genetic doping. [3]
The process for genetic therapy is quite simple, and is already used to treat haemophilia, heart disease and cystic fibrosis, to name a few. There are three ways this process can be carried out. The first is to replace the defective genetic material with a serviceable part to enable the gene to carry out the process correctly. However this process is limited to genetic diseases with a single gene faulty. The second process uses genes that modify the proteins already produced to counteract the disease. The third process inserts genes that can depress harmful processes and alter the way a gene responds to other processes around it. [2]

Picture of a mouse after genes for the production of myostatin and insulin-like growth factor I were used. Source:

The genetic material is injected into the body using parts of viruses. Viruses have properties that are advantageous to this process, such as they can replace a human cells genetic material with their own and replicate themselves within the body, effectively “infecting” the body with the enhanced DNA [2]. This is one of the focuses on detection of gene doping in athletes, as the shell of the virus remains in the body for a short amount of time, as do the genetically modified proteins. Scientist can use this as evidence of gene doping.
However like all performance enhancing products, the suppliers are always modifying the material to pass the current tests scientists have for detection.  Anti-doping agencies are now looking for a more holistic approach to detection. Instead of looking for chemical traces of prohibited substances, they are looking at the effect the substance has on the body. For example if you enhance the insulin growth factors genetic material, the body’s level of fatty acid changes significantly and protein expressions are altered in way that the body cannot change naturally [1]. Other changes caused by genetic doping are also being researched and tested, as the technology progresses. However most of the current tests are not suitable for humans and will need more testing to be used in main stream doping testing.
Genetic doping is about to become the new frontier for athletes wanting to have an “edge” on their competitors, and scientist are working tirelessly to ensure there is sufficient testing available to ensure that there is an even playing field for all athletes.

[1] Athletes Beware, Scientists Hot on Gene Doping Trail | Wired Science | 2012. Athletes Beware, Scientists Hot on Gene Doping Trail | Wired Science | [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17 March 2012].

[2]Gene doping: the hype and the reality - Wells - 2009 - British Journal of Pharmacology - Wiley Online Library. 2012. Gene doping: the hype and the reality - Wells - 2009 - British Journal of Pharmacology - Wiley Online Library. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17 March 2012].

[3]Genetic Doping Next Athletic Cheat: Scientific American Podcast. 2012. Genetic Doping Next Athletic Cheat: Scientific American Podcast. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 17 March 2012].

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