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Personal Genomes, Gene-Doping, and the Olympics

As Emily posted about a few days ago, there's a growing level of anxiety out there about the ways in which genetic modifications could alter what it means to be human. One of the most visible manifestations of that, in this Olympic year, is the fear that "gene-doping" could make it impossible to determine whether a given athlete has had modifications done to enhance strength, speed, flexibility, or other sport-related physical abilities. Biochemical modifications, no matter how subtle, will eventually be discovered; gene-doping may not be detectable at all through traditional methods.

Gene-doping is the process of introducing new genetic material into cells in order to induce new or increased physiological products (proteins, hormones, etc.). A gene-doping process to increase muscle production has been shown to be successful in mice tests and is moving swiftly to human trials; it has enormous potential for treating muscular dystrophy. The athletic applications are self-evident.

Here's the scenario, then: as I noted in my post on Friday about Harvard Medical School's Personal Genome Project, it's very possible that cheap, fast genome sequencing technology will be widely availble by 2010. It will almost certainly be available by 2012, in time for that year's Summer Olympics. I suspect that the first use of individual genome scanning we'll see outside the doctor's office will be at Olympic events, and, from there, spreading through amateur athletics around the world. By late in the next decade, we'll probably see gene-scanning done as a matter of course even at the high school level.

It's possible that this cycle will start even by the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but I suspect that it will take a global scandal to push institutions towards the regular use of genome scans. The idea of having one's DNA on file is just unnerving enough that I expect to see push-back, at least at first. I may be wrong; we could well see genome sequencing technology deployed at the next Summer games.

How would this work? I'm not a geneticist, but it might play out something like this: Since gene-doping is a targeted, localized process, it doesn't change the genome in every cell of the body. Genome sequencing-based doping tests would probably do a comparison of genes from sport-appropriate muscle groups (thigh muscles for runners, shoulders and arms for shot-put, etc.) and a random selection of unrelated body parts. Down the road, as gene-doping techniques become more sophisticated, there might be a requirement for all amateur athletes to register their genomes at an early age with an international committee, so the DNA would be available for later comparison should the athlete compete on the world stage.

The question, for me, is where does this lead? Will we start looking for evidence of gene-doping in other competitions where it might be useful? Will we see mandatory DNA tests for spatial-processing modifications at high school "Math Field Day" events, or memory improvement doping at the National Spelling Bee? Or will this lead to a future where genome modifications are seen as no more unfair than any other training technologies?

Comments (2)


Genetic screening for muscle cells requires a biopsy. Unless biopsy procedures get more sophisticated than traditional punch biopsies, genetic screening won't become widespread in sports, due to the injuries sustained during the biopsy.

Biopsies hurt, or at least mine did.

Ouch. Well, clearly in order for this scenario to come about, there would need to be improvements in muscle cell collection techniques. Sadly, I suspect the need for athlete doping screening is probably a better catalyst for process improvements than medical patient comfort.


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