Ethics @ Work: Let the 'Mutant Games' begin (2008, Apr 14)

Gene Doping

Ethics @ Work: Let the ‘Mutant Games’ begin

Aug. 14, 2008
We are fortunate that the sporting news from Beijing has come mainly from the playing field, and not from the laboratory. Cycling coverage is always a close race between the results from the course and the results of the drug policing, but following the disqualification of a number of Russian women athletes, doping has been pretty much out of the news at the Olympics. However, the reality of doping is always looming in the background, and the spectators are left wondering, does s/he or doesn’t s/he?

The assumption that doping is more or less pervasive, and that the vagaries of defining and detecting it will always make enforcement arbitrary, has led a number of observers to draw a fascinating parallel between today’s prohibition on doping and the previous prohibition on professionalism.

Nowadays the Olympics are all about money. The papers are filled with estimates of how much a gold medal costs in terms of the infrastructure needed to create champions (it’s about $30 million) and much how one is worth in terms of endorsements (often seven figures for tennis players or track athletes, more like five or six for fencers or synchronized swimmers).

It’s hard to believe that as recently as the 1980s strict rules against professionalism were in place. Anyone who earned money from sport (this once applied even to teachers of sport), or anyone who competed against others who earned money from sport, was disqualified. The legendary American athlete Jim Thorpe, who won two Olympic gold medals in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, had his medals stripped after it was revealed that he had played minor league baseball years before.

Strict enforcement of the amateurism rules would have meant that only independently wealthy individuals would be able to compete. What happened instead was a cynical and arbitrary application of the rules.

The Soviet bloc had athletes who were professionals in every sense, though their profession was usually listed as soldier or student, while the West had an elaborate system of under-the-table payments, “expense” payments, trust funds and so on. The system was a nightmare, since all athletes received money but only some were disqualified. Finally in the 1990s the system fell apart. The de facto professionalism of Soviet bloc athletes, which gave them an immense advantage in international competition, was a critical factor.

The parallel to doping is expressed as follows: Just as it was practically impossible to compete on an international level in the 20th century without accepting money, so it is practically impossible to compete on an international level in the 21st century without using performance-enhancing substances. (This of course has not been proven.)

The exact definition of doping is subject to dispute, just as the exact definition of professionalism is. Both can take place in secret, making enforcement necessarily arbitrary. The conclusion: Rules against doping should fall by the wayside just as rules against professionalism did.

The counterargument is as follows: In the case of professionalism, almost all the athletes wanted to get money, and most of the spectators didn’t mind if they did. In the case of doping, almost all of the athletes prefer not to take performance-enhancing substances, and almost all of the spectators also prefer that they don’t.

The athletes prefer no doping because doping regimens require a huge amount of effort and expense, and because many of the drugs are dangerous. For example, the endurance-enhancing drug EPO thickens the blood, and is the prime suspect in the sudden early deaths of a number of cyclists. Insiders tell of cyclists getting up in the middle of the night to exercise in order to get the blood moving to prevent their doped blood from killing them; obviously they would prefer getting a good night’s sleep.

The spectators prefer no doping because they don’t care about outcomes, they only care about the competition – a level playing field. Women’s tennis is nearly as popular as men’s, even though the top women are no match for mediocre male players, because it is a fair and exciting game. The playing field is most level without doping.

But what if it’s not true? The same “arms race” hypothesis was advanced for professionalism in sport, and was proven false. Maybe the athletes want to push the envelope of the ultimate capabilities of the technology-aided human body, while the spectators want to see the tallest, fastest and strongest athletes science can provide!

John Tierney of The New York Times has an interesting suggestion to test this idea: Set up an alternative “no-holds-barred” competition with no doping tests allowed. (He even gives some suggestions for names, including the “Mutant Games.”) One must assume that the regular leagues will ban anyone who takes part in these competitions, even if they submit to the testing regimen, just as the amateur rules forbade not only professionals but also amateurs who competed against them.

If the athletes are chafing at the testing regimen and the spectators want to see drug-aided competitors, then the new league will draw competitors and spectators; if not, then the “arms-race” hypothesis of doping will have been proven true.

There is a slight problem with this test, due to the great prestige of the official events. Attempts to establish professional athletic competitions in the 20th century were unsuccessful, because athletes discovered they could make much more money in the more prestigious amateur leagues. Yet when the prestige events themselves allowed professionals, everyone was happy.

I personally am strongly inclined to believe the received wisdom; that doping is a destructive arms race, and that everyone besides the undertakers would be happy to get rid of it. But Tierney’s suggestion is an interesting way to see if the received wisdom is correct.

Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.

October 12th, 2009

Gene doping in sport: fact or fiction? (2008, Dec 6)

Gene Doping

Gene doping in sport: fact or fiction?

Experts believe it is only a matter of time before athletes manipulate their genetic material to gain an unfair advantage despite the current lack of proven cases.
A science journalist, who has published a novel on the theme, and a scientist working in the field of genetics talked to swissinfo about the likelihood and dangers of gene doping in sport.

Since the times of ancient Greece, a minority of athletes have employed a variety of potions to artificially boost their performance. More recently, amphetamines, anabolic steroids and hormones have been the drugs of choice.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has recently turned its attention to the threat of gene doping and officially banned the practice in 2003. There have already been suspicions of some athletes using the gene therapy Repoxygen to increase their red blood cell count and thereby allow the body to absorb more oxygen.

Professor Max Gassmann of Zurich University’s Institute of Veterinary Physiology has manipulated the erythropoietin (EPO) gene of mice to produce more oxygen carrying red blood cells – a process that could eventually be transferred to humans.

Gassmann does not think gene doping has infiltrated sport at the moment but believes some people may already be testing its potential, just as beneficial gene therapy is currently undergoing clinical trials.

“I can hardly imagine that we had a gene doping cheat winning at the Beijing Olympics,” he told swissinfo. “But there has been doping throughout history and if gene doping becomes viable then you cannot stop it, because people want to win.”
Fictional leap
Author Beat Glogger has taken the theory a stage further by writing a thriller – “Run For My Life” – about genetically modified athletes. Glogger, also a science journalist, and Gassmann contributed to a Swiss sports ministry document warning about the risks of gene doping.

Scientists have already identified more than 150 genes that potentially influence performance in sports. These include genes that control muscle growth, muscle speed and the production of red blood cells.

“I take the next step into fiction by saying it is possible to manipulate the genes that control speed, power, endurance and even mental strength. These are the four key factors for athletic performance,” Glogger told swissinfo.

There are many cases of people with naturally malfunctioning genes. Most of the time this results in health problems, such as muscular dystrophy, but the rare occurrence of a mutation can also bring benefits.

Finnish cross-country skiing legend Eero Mäntyranta won race after race in the 1960s because of a natural genetic mutation that helped his blood absorb large amounts of oxygen. It would be very hard in future to determine if such a case was caused by nature or gene manipulation, according to Glogger.

“If, after the introduction of the relevant genes, the body produces more EPO or testosterone by itself then you cannot detect it – it looks like you are a natural,” he said.
To die for
However, athletes run a high risk of developing serious diseases such as cancer or even dying if they submit to gene manipulation that is still in the early days of scientific development.

Gassmann’s genetically modified mice live only half as long as other mice. Scientists know how to modify genes and introduce them into the body, but not how to control the behaviour of such genes once they have been implanted.

“Whatever you put into the body is hard to control. If you realise it is no good then it is almost impossible to stop, and that is what could happen with gene cheating athletes,” Gassmann said. “It is easy to switch on a light but much more complicated to dim it.”

One method of controlling modified genes is to develop drugs that act like on and off switches, but this process is still in its infancy.

“Gene doping could be undetectable and it could improve performance but you could also die,” Glogger warned. Just like the characters in his book.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

October 12th, 2009

There are those who wonder if (gene) doping is OK (2008, Dec 18)

Gene Doping

There are those who wonder if (gene) doping is OK
By HOWARD FENDRICH – 15 hours ago
WASHINGTON (AP) — Gather a roomful of anti-doping experts, administrators, academics and athletes alike — something a conservative think tank did Thursday — and there is no consensus as to whether gene doping, thought by some to be the next frontier in Olympic cheating, is at hand.
Indeed, there isn’t even consensus on whether it would be a bad thing.
Turns out there is a school of thought — “pro-doping,” it’s called — that suggests anything athletes do to improve performance is OK, even, for example, manipulating DNA or surgically enlarging the webbing between fingers and toes in order to swim faster.
So says Andy Miah, who teaches at the University of the West of Scotland and was among about 10 panelists who participated in Thursday’s conference on “The Coming Age of the Uber-Athlete: What’s So Bad about Gene Enhancement and Doping?” at the American Enterprise Institute.
Gene doping, which is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, is a spin-off of gene therapy, which typically alters a person’s DNA to fight diseases.
Miah advocates “celebrating the value of performance enhancement,” he said.
“I don’t think a public health crisis would arise from enhancement technologies,” he added.
Miah said there is a growing group of professors around the world — “Four years ago, there were half as many people as now,” he noted — who back his “World Pro-Doping Agency” thought experiment. One of his premises is that sports wrongly are thought of as a separate entity, different from other pursuits or professions — music, art, medicine — where no one objects to, essentially, doing whatever one can to be the best one can be.
“We are more willing to embrace these enhancements, with the caveat that we need them to be safe enough,” he said. “We don’t all want to kill ourselves by using these things, but we are interested in exploring the realm of human embodiment that is beyond our current capabilities — and that might be cognitive, it might be physical. And I think that’s where sport isn’t quite at yet.”
Other speakers Thursday included Olympic champion hurdler Edwin Moses and U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart, who believe gene doping should be banned, worry what it could do to athletes — and agree someone is likely to try eventually.
“How do you feel if it’s your son or your daughter who wants to be an Olympian? Would you let your kid or your grandchild take what they have to take? Or do what they have to do?” Moses asked.
On the other hand, he acknowledged there are those who will.
“If you have experts saying it’s realistic to turn on pieces of your metabolism and it becomes feasible for the athletes to do something without killing themselves and it’s not tremendously expensive, someone is going to try it,” said Moses, who won gold medals in 1976 and 1984 in the 400-meter hurdles. “There will be someone who can convince an athlete they can get away with it.”
For his part, Tygart believes “that risk is several years away,” he said. “And even if it comes, there would be the ability to detect it through the testing process.”
There were others present who were not so sure about either of those assessments.
John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, told of conversations he has had with coaches and scientists in China.
“We are really naive if we are to believe that the Chinese at this point are clean or that they are the only country in the world that is experimenting with genetic enhancement as we speak,” said Leonard, who was not a panelist but attended the conference and spoke during question-and-answer periods.
“There are lots of countries in the world who couldn’t care less about doing it safely, and there are lots of athletes who will take the chance that they will die in order to win medals. … Will the United States have the same viewpoint when we start losing gold medals?”
Theodore Friedmann, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, researches human gene therapy and spoke about the risks.
“People are injured. People die,” he said. “It should be reserved for treatment of people with serious diseases.”
He said he doesn’t know whether there are athletes attempting gene doping.
“Nobody knows,” he said, before adding: “It wouldn’t surprise me.”
About one thing Friedmann left no doubt, however: Unlike Miah, he thinks the practice has no place in sports.
“The anti-doping world accepts the notion that rules matter and, in fact, it reflects the wish of most athletes,” Friedmann said. “The world of pro-doping is the contrary of all that.”

October 12th, 2009

Couch-Potato Drugs Are WADA’s First Banned for Gene-Doping Ties (2009, Jan 14)

Gene Doping

Couch-Potato Drugs Are WADA’s First Banned for Gene-Doping Ties

By Mason Levinson
Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) — Two drugs that activate genetic switches, fooling the body into believing it has exercised, are the first to be added to the Olympic sports prohibited list for their ties to gene doping.
The drugs, whose effects were first disclosed in a report published online by the journal Cell on July 31, were added to the nine-page list issued by the World Anti-Doping Agency under the “Gene Doping” classification as of Jan. 1.
It’s a category that is likely to grow over the next five to 10 years, said Dr.Gary Wadler , who heads WADA’s Prohibited List Committee, as gene therapy becomes “part of the matrix of what physicians have to treat patients.”
“There’s gene-therapy stuff going on in research labs everywhere in the world,” Wadler said in an interview at his Manhasset, New York, office. “I think they’re going to cause breakthroughs, and those breakthroughs, if they have any application to enhance athletic performance, then you’ll ultimately see it banned.”
One of the drugs is a synthetic protein called Aicar that, when given to mice, improved endurance by 44 percent after four weeks, even without exercise. The other is an experimental medicine made by GlaxoSmithKline Plc , GW1516, which remodeled the mice’s skeletal muscle and raised their endurance levels by 75 percent when the animals also ran on a treadmill.
WADA ’s 2009 prohibited list includes nearly 70 anabolic steroids; about 60 stimulants; hormones; diuretics and other masking agents; blood-doping methods; and several narcotics. The Montreal-based agency oversees anti-drug programs for Olympic- level sports.
2002 Prediction
Wadler said he “predicted the future” when in 2002 he wrote a chapter on emerging science and technologies for the textbook “Performance Enhancing Substances in Sport and Exercise.” In it, he discussed the implications of the U.S. Human Genome Project, which was launched in 1990, and examined gene transfer therapy.
“The dissection of the human genetic code not only opened a Pandora’s box of diagnostic tools and methods; it has significantly paved the way for an array of therapeutic interventions never conceived before and has spawned the field of pharmacogenetics,” he wrote at the time.
WADA held a gene-doping workshop for scientists, ethicists, athletes and representatives from the Olympic movement in March 2002 and again in December 2005 and June 2008. It formed its expert panel on gene doping in 2004.
‘Couch Potato’
Last July, a news release , titled “Exercise in a Pill,” announced the results of the study by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego that detailed the effects of Aicar, which it called the “ultimate couch-potato experiment,” as well as the effects of GW1516.
The findings may lead to the development of obesity and muscle-wasting-disease treatments, and has implications for the treatment of diabetes and lipid disorders.
By activating different genetic switches with the two drugs, the scientists were able to increase fat burning and the mice showed major transformation of skeletal muscle fibers. In giving the mice GW1516 and a regular exercise regimen, for example, they saw a 38 percent increase in “slow twitch” muscle fibers, which relate to a muscle’s endurance.
“They have the capacity of changing the patterns of gene expression in cells and tissues, so our view is that that’s a form of gene manipulation,” Theodore Friedmann , chairman of WADA’s Gene Doping Panel, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think that list is going to shrink. It’s probably going to increase markedly over the years.”
Test Procedures
Ronald Evans , who is a professor in the Salk Institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory and led the research into the use of Aicar and GW1516 to manipulate signaling pathways, also developed a test to readily detect the drugs in blood and urine, and is working with WADA to enact its implementation.
While these drugs can be easily detected, other gene- therapy methods are much more problematic for WADA, and in turn sports associations and leagues. These involve the use of genetic techniques to bring doping substances to muscle tissue and other targets without passing through blood and urine, thereby confounding testing efforts.
“It’s better for patients, but it also makes it more challenging because of doping,” Wadler said.
Friedmann, who runs a gene-therapy laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, said WADA has mounted a major research program to develop ways to find evidence of gene manipulation.
Drug’s Effect
“WADA is very forward-looking into designing new forms of doping detection based on the new principle that you don’t look for the drug itself, you look for the effect of the drug,” said Friedmann.
In February, the committee will begin reviewing the 2009 list, assessing research and what they’ve learned about doping through everything from medical journals to police investigations. They’ll then tweak the list and turn it over to WADA’s Executive Committee for final approval Oct. 1, giving sports organizations three months to adopt new regulations and understand the changes.
To contact the reporter on this story: Mason Levinson in New York .

October 9th, 2009

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