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High-Tech Cheating: Gene Therapy to Boost Athletic Performance

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Oct. 2, 2000 -- Never mind urine and blood tests to detect performance-enhancing drugs -- with what's coming down the pike, the future of drug testing in sports could call for much higher-tech intervention. The International Olympic Committee's World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) predicts that gene therapy will be the next big thing among those athletes willing to do anything for the gold.

"It certainly is possible," says Inder Verma, PhD, president of the American Society of Gene Therapy and a professor at The Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. "You could take growth hormone or erythropoietin (EPO) from [a person's] cells and deliver it to the same person. Whether this is going on now, I don't know, but it is perfectly possible."

As medical research untangles our genetic code in a noble attempt to understand and cure disease, healthy but unscrupulous opportunists may stand poised to exploit the findings. It's certainly not a new concept. Athletes have been manipulating medical knowledge to their advantage since long before steroids came into vogue. The current trend among would-be Olympians involves injecting strength-enhancing human growth hormone (hGH) to pump up muscles or endurance-boosting EPO to super-oxygenate the blood.

There has been controversy surrounding drug testing at the Sydney Olympics. Who should be tested? Who should pay for it? Does it really work? "Growth hormone is very hard to detect already," says Verma. But for the most part, blood and urine tests (albeit highly sensitive, expensive ones) can and do weed out those who've ingested or injected illegal substances.

"The reason they can check for EPO now," Verma tells WebMD, "is that the version synthesized and sold [is slightly different] than EPO [naturally produced in the body]. This causes an antibody reaction and makes it distinguishable." But when a person's own genes are delivered, and the athlete's body then produces more of the performance-enhancing factor, it's a very different story.

"If someone is absolutely bent upon doing it," says Verma, "I've racked my brain and posed the question to colleagues, and I can't come up with a way to detect it. If you take a gene for producing EPO and put it into the athlete ... the protein produced would be no different than the [person's own] protein. It would be exactly the same." Exactly the same -- and thus completely undetectable.

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