Gene doping is a real danger - but anti-doping science is making progress

Gene therapy research has reached a critical phase. Already practised on humans as part of strictly controlled experiments, gene therapy promises to become a widely available form of treatment for injury and disease. However, advances in the science of gene therapy have a darker side: gene doping - the unscrupulous use of genetic modification to enhance athletic ability by athletes, sportspeople and coaches.

“We have seen an interest among individuals who contact gene researchers for the purpose of doping in sport,” said Karolinska Institutet’s Professor Arne Ljungqvist, Sweden’s most well-known anti-doping expert and chairman of WADA’s (World Anti-Doping Agency) Health, Medical and Research Committee. “This is a disturbing trend because not only is gene doping in sport wrong, it can also be extremely dangerous.”

The current status of research in the field of gene-doping detection will be presented at an international symposium to be held at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden on 4 - 5 December 2005. Two press conferences will be held in connection with the symposium (see below), which will be attended by the world’s leading gene researchers and some of the sporting world’s most prominent personalities.

“Gene doping represents a serious threat to the integrity of sport and the health of athletes,” said WADA chairman Richard W. Pound. “As the international organisation responsible for promoting, coordinating and monitoring the global fight against doping in sport in all its forms, WADA is devoting significant resources and attention to ways that will enable us to detect gene doping so that we can catch the cheaters, level the playing field and ensure the safety of athletes. The 2nd WADA Symposium on Gene Doping promises to help advance these efforts.”

One of the most important messages of the symposium is that anti-doping scientists are working vigorously alongside genetic scientists so that, as new therapeutic methods are being developed, anti-doping scientists are finding new ways to detect gene doping.

“Gene doping will in all likelihood soon be with us, and I would not be surprised if the first tentative steps had already been taken,” said American professor Theodore Friedman, one of the world’s leading gene researchers, chairman of WADA’s Gene Doping Panel and the first speaker at the symposium.

Sportspeople are taking immense risks when they add new genetic material into their bodies. Already there have been at least two deaths during experiments conducted to treat the sick.

“Two people have, for example, developed leukaemia,” continued Professor Friedman. “The seriously ill can take such a risk perhaps, but for young, healthy sportsmen and women, it is completely unacceptable.”

One challenge that anti-doping experts are trying to tackle is the fact that gene therapy methods, once available, will be relatively simple to use. All that may be needed is a standard laboratory.

The genes attractive to sport are well defined: those that stimulate tissue growth and boost strength, and those that increase stamina by stimulating the production of red blood cells.

On 4-5 December 2005, Stockholm is hosting the 2nd WADA SYMPOSIUM ON GENE DOPING. Participants include some fifty leading research scientist in the field of gene technology and gene therapy from around the world. The symposium is being organized by the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) in association with the Swedish Sports Confederation and Karolinska Institutet, and is a follow-up to the first WADA gene doping symposium held in New York’s Banbury Centre in March 2002.

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