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September 8, 2004
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  Genetically Altered Athletes    

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Gene Therapy

2004 Athens Olympic Games

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As the U.S. anti-doping agency continues to call Olympic athletes into question regarding use of steroids, this ScienCentral News video reports that scientists are raising concerns about what they call the future of performance enhancement—genetic doping.

Keeping Clean

Wrestler Kerry McCoy had a lot to be proud of even before winning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in Athens this August: a silver medal in the 2003 world championships; winner of two NCAA wrestling championships at Penn State University; and a fifth place finish in the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney.

McCoy, also wrestling coach at Lehigh University, says he earned his accolades with hard work in the gym, and the mounting charges against athletes accused of using performance-enhancing drugs are disappointing.

Kerry McCoy lifting weights
US Olympian Kerry McCoy
"You think that once you get in any kind of competitive arena—you know, it's you and another person just trying to see who's the best, because of what time and energy and training you put in," he says. "And if someone wants to take a shortcut by doing something that's not legal or not moral, that's unfortunate. It's a disadvantage to the sport and disadvantage to the athlete, because their experience is really cheapened by not getting the full amount out of themselves."

While it's no secret that drugs like steroids have plagued sports for decades, an article in Discover Magazine says it's nothing compared to the chaos that could ensue if athletes start to misuse new discoveries in gene therapy.

Genetic Steroids

University of Pennsylvania gene therapy researcher Lee Sweeney studies ways to treat muscular dystrophy and the general frailty that comes with aging. In his lab, he inserted a gene called IGF-1 into the muscles of mice. Humans have this gene as well, and our muscles make IGF-1 to repair themselves. But as we get older, our muscles make less and less of it.

IGF-1 mouse
This mouse was genetically altered to produce more IGF-1.
Sweeney found that in the mice, "the muscles [of mice given IGF-1] got on the order of 15 to 20 percent stronger, even more in even younger animals, without the animals doing anything. So just introducing this gene and introducing higher production of IGF-1 caused the muscles to get stronger without any exercise." He says in later tests in which the altered mice were put on an exercise regimen, their muscles became 30 percent stronger.

While Sweeney says mainstream application of this therapy is still decades away, he's gotten hundreds of emails from athletes and coaches who want to test the technique—regardless of safety guarantees. While he has declined their requests, the willingness to try this untested therapy has convinced him that "gene doping" will become a reality. He also says preventing or policing it will be difficult, "because many of the strategies that we're pursuing would be undetectable at the level of a blood or a urine test. You'd actually have to get a piece of the muscle to realize that we'd actually introduced a new gene or new genetic material into it."

Richard Pound, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, also fears that misuse of this new technology is inevitable. "There will be, if not countries, there will be people in some countries that are going to be prepared to try it. And unfortunately that's human nature."

But while Sweeney and Pound are concerned, as an athlete Kerry McCoy says it's his job not to worry about it. "I just focus on being my best, and I feel like my best is better than anyone else, enhanced or not, so I really don’t worry about that,” he says. “In 2000 I was fifth—I lost in the quarterfinals—and it was kind of a disappointing loss because I expected to win. So the goal has always been to be an Olympic champion, so that’s what the goal is, to try and win the gold."

Sweeney's body of work, largely funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in various journals over the years, was part of a symposium at the 2004 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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