Genetic Doping ahead of the 2012 Olympics

The world of sports, though not at all my area of expertise has benefited greatly over the last century or so from scientific developments. From materials technology to fluid dynamics, creating better equipment Technologies looking at fairness and deciding timings/ outcomes of crucial decisions and within the players themselves.

A friend of mine was briefly employed by Speedo as a materials engineer to investigate hydrophobic surfaces for optimisation of swimsuits, following the “success” of the LZR swimsuits, which reduced many world records within swimming Fina, the regulating body brought in a whole host of regulations to attempt levelling the playing field as some refered to these new suits as “Technological doping” This lead to the suits eventually being banned in 2010. Whilst this is a great example of science in the sporting industry it shows how this kind of enhancement is a very much 0:1 benefit; the competitor either has it or not.

However, when the athlete is being doped themselves this all gets a bit more tricky. Once again we find out biology makes things alot more interesting than they may at first appear. Originally doping started using anabolic steroids, these compounds mimic hormones in the body such as testosterone and its chemical analogues which lead to an up-regulation of protein production which eventually leads to a gain of muscle. To combat [this sporting authorities introduced randomized drug test at both national and international events. This began an arms (and legs) race between dishonest athletes and the governing bodies. The next evolution of this, was blood doping, by Introducing more blood into their veins,  athletes were able to increase the oxygen carrying capabilities of their blood allowing for harder, better, faster, stronger training sessions [Daft punk et. al 1999]. Again this lead to more stringent testing which is now capable of assessing the age of red blood cells to gauge whether an athlete has augmented their blood in any way, this is achieved by looking at proteins in the blood, a potential market for Biosensors.

No sooner have new analytical methods been developed to detect doping than new doping methods are being predicted with the latest evolution of doping now on the horizon. Gene doping as it has been labelled, is a current prediction of many policing agencies within sport, this exploits the new fields of gene therapy to directly induce changes at a cellular level within the athlete.

Gene therapy, is defined as ” The use of DNA to treat disease” this is often administered by the use of a virus. Amongst the most efficient “Organisms” in nature viruses exist only to self replicate, they don’t need their own cells and organelles to live saving lots of energy and making them very successful self replicators. By introducing highly targeted DNA we can replace faulty genes in cases of genetic disorder, such as inherited diseases or alternatively cause a transient boost in the transcription of a particular gene, for a more short -term solution.

Whilst this is of obvious medical benefit, others have seen how this technology could be used unethically in sport, to make a virtually undetectable source of doping. By introducing a gene say, coding for the up-regulation of erythrocyte(Red Blood Cell) differentiation we could again increase the oxygen capacity of blood. As this process would almost identically match the natural process, happening in your body as you read this, it would be very hard to detect who had been doping. Testing for the virus itself would represent a problem as, the dodgy DNA would be contained within the viral capsule, so it would be experimentally difficult to differentiate the doping virus form a normal virus such as a runny nose or a cough.

With the 2012 Olympics currently looming,  this technology is coming to the forefront of officials’ minds though it is scientifically possible it is unlikely to happen just yet but maybe the next sprint in the ongoing race.



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