Know How – Training, Cheating genetics

Athletes can face enormous pressure to excel incompetition


As performers, we can all face enormous pressure to excel in competition. Winning not only brings intrinsic satisfaction and fulfilment, but also the spoils that are so often wrapped up in competitive sport. A star athlete can earn a lot of money and a lot of fame, and athletes only have a short time to do their best work.

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Athletes know that training is the best path to victory, but as far back as ancient Greece, athletes have often been willing to take any preparation that would improve their performance. Drugs in cycling and for that matter drugs in all sports have been a problem that has been going on ever since athletes figured out that they could go faster, jump higher and outlast the competition through means not within the realm of true sportsmanship. There will always be those who think that the only way to succeed or even do well is to cheat but those people are unavoidable and have a tendency to weed themselves out through natural selection

There will always be those who think that the only way to succeed or even do well is to cheat but those people are unavoidable and have a tendency to weed themselves out through natural selection

We have the technology… almost

The advancement of science has continued to push back the boundaries of the possible, and with such an innate desire to win, athletes and coaches will look for new innovative methods for enhancing performance. Attempting to outsmart the drugs police will lead to the emergence of more sophisticated, scientifically advantageous methods.

When in 1990, the genome project set out to map the entire genetic human code, the results some 13 years later were inevitably going to start a cascade of events in medicine that would result in the use of gene therapy to combat disease and beyond. Instead of injecting drugs to treat diseases, it is envisaged that doctors will be able to prescribe genetic treatments that will induce the body’s own machinery to produce the necessary components to combat illness.

Methods employed to ensure delivery of the necessary genetic information to the individual are fast developing and with the speed in which science travels, new and innovative techniques are always on the horizon.

Ensuring safe and efficient transition of genetic material into localised sites has been the continued problem for researchers and one that for the time being sits tantalisingly outside the reach of the sporting communities. According to the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA), that was created to promote, coordinate, and monitor at the international level the fight against doping in sport, such developments in gene transfer will present numerous challenges.

Gene therapy, by its definition, is the non-therapeutic use of genes, genetic elements and/or cells that have the capacity to enhance athletic performance. WADA suggest that few human genetic diseases have been effectively treated by gene transfer, however emerging evidence of gene therapies developed for the treatment of diseases such as anaemia (the gene for erythropoietin; EPO), muscular dystrophy (the gene for insulin-like growth factor) and peripheral vascular disease (the gene for vascular growth factor), means that theoretically, the concept of gene treatment to build muscle, alter and adjust muscle composition, or enhance endurance levels in athletes is around the corner.

But linking theory to practice is not as easy as it seems and the use of gene transfer as a means of therapy remains a very immature and experimental field of human medicine. Nevertheless when medical personnel begin to use such methods as a means to cure athletic injuries for example, the boundaries of healing and enhancement will become blurred. The line between what is medically justifiable treatment and what is performance enhancement will disappear.

Catching the cheats

According to leading researchers in the field of genetics, by 2012, gene therapy will be a well-established and widely used medical technology, which will change sport profoundly – and not for the better

The question as to whether gene therapy can be detected is one WADA are quick to answer. Although it might be difficult to see that a particular gene has been added to the body, there will be consequences to the addition that can be seen and measured. Gene therapy is not an imminent threat to cycling and other sports, but it has the potential to dramatically affect all sports for many years unless steps are taken to educate athletes and research the effects more rigorously. Whether the 2012 London Olympics will be too soon for signs of this fast emerging and potentially dangerous practice is hard to predict, but the advent of gene therapy is closer than you think.

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Boundaries between healing and enhancement will become blurred…