The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) defines gene doping as “the non-therapeutic use of genes, genetic elements that have the capacity to enhance athletic performance”. Gene doping relates with the introduction of a transgene or a recombinant protein to alter the gene expression level to achieve the benefit of an athlete’s physiological performance. Different from taking PEDs and blood doping, gene doping involves altering the DNA sequence itself and editing the genes to improve athletic performance. Although this concept is quite new and is still at its developing stage, the potential it has to impact the sports industry is massive.
There has been noticeable progress in research on gene doping and methods of gene delivery technologies to enhance athletic performance in various sports. New substances are being found and each of them could be used to carry out different purposes. The increase of body weight, increase in muscle mass and an improvement in muscle strength can all be triggered by gene doping. Regarding the safety of the procedure, there are possible health damage gene doping stimulates that relate to both the vector used to deliver the gene and the encoded transgene. The ongoing research in this field has expanded, starting from working on animal models, then to gene therapy in humans which brought numerous successes. These successes of multiple gene therapy studies are the major cause of concerns of the spread of blood doping in the sports industry.
One of the most common real life cases of blood doping is the use of erythropoietin (EPO). Erythropoietin is a 165-amino-acid glycoprotein hormone that increases the red blood cell count by affecting the kidneys. By the injection of EPO genes into the body, EPO hormone count will elevate significantly. Therefore in endurance sports where the oxygen delivery system is essential, EPO will definately be beneficial to the athlete. EPO is also used to treat anaemia patients but when it comes to athlete’s use, it is strictly banned. This is due to the possible side effects and risk factors the injection brings which includes: increased hematocrit (percentage by volume of red blood cells in blood) that enhances the probability of a stroke, increased peripheral resistance, and unexpectedly elevated arterial blood pressure.
The ethical concerns of gene doping should be taken into consideration. The most basic questions that arise are:
- Should athletes be allowed to use gene doping to fight injuries or specific diseases?
- Should gene doping be banned from elite, professional games?
- Could gene doping alter the nature of a fair, competitive sport?
The borderline between the medical use of gene doping and the illegal use of gene doping is blurring. As the gene therapy techniques improve rapidly, the likelihood of the abuse of this technology is increasing. That being the case, policies and regulations regarding this developing technology seem essential. It is crucial to acknowledge the potential consequences of these assets of gene doping used in the sports industry. To address this concern, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the WADA is also carrying out anti-doping research to develop methods of detecting gene doping of the athletes entering the competition. This protects the athletes from possible side effects, and the fairness of competitions is sustained.
Suwan (Hailey) Choi
Member of Medical Society