The Concept Of Gene Doping

Gene doping can be considered as a ‘spin off’ of gene therapy, which is the addition or modification of genes in order to treat diseases. In gene doping, the reason for genetic modification is entirely non-therapeutic, and is used to enhance athletic ability by transferring genes to either increase or decrease the production of essential proteins.

The interest in gene doping came about when scientists administered genes to a mouse that had the effect of long-lasting strength as part of an experiment. The mouse was said to be strong even in old age and without exercise. Another type of therapy also caught the public’s attention. Initially to be used for the treatment of anemia, the therapy is meant to stimulate the production of red blood cells. A higher level of red blood cells causes a boost in endurance, due to the increased levels of blood oxygen levels. This is the reason it gained the interest of athletes and coaches alike.

Gene doping can be done one in two ways. In the first method, the modified genes are added to all other body cells excluding the ones involved in sperm and egg formation. The effects caused by the genes cannot be passed down to offspring. The second way is where the altered genes are added to the sperm cells, egg cells or an already formed embryo. The effects of this doping could be passed down to offspring. So far, science has only been able to work with the first method, as the second presents unprecedented risks.

There are 187 known genes that are associated with athletic ability. Gene doping in sports specifically deals with amplifying or reducing the activity of these genes in an athlete. One gene that is easily modified is the one responsible for the growth and repair of muscles. The altered genes can be injected into the muscles or blood using a ‘transportation’ mode (or vector) like a virus. Scientists remove the virus’ genetic material and replace it with the human gene then inject it into the body.

The trick here is making sure that the genes get to the right cells. Usually the genes are injected directly into the muscles, so that they only get into the muscle cells. Once the gene is inside the cell, it has to enter the nucleus and get into the chromosome. When this happens, the gene can be passed on to new cells when the original cell divides. These new cells contain a new set of instructions and therefore form a new protein that will cause a boost in the athlete’s performance.

Unfortunately this science hasn’t been fully explored. Practically, the performance boost will be temporary because in order to cause a large effect, an equally larger risk needs to be taken, which could be fatal. Another complication is that the modified genes could accidentally turn on a cancer gene, or trigger abnormal cell division if they get to the wrong cells.

In conclusion, gene doping hasn’t yet become safe and is also widely discouraged and looked down on in the world of sports.