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Athletes look to genetics to gain the edge

by Rafael EpsteinABC News
July 3rd, 2008

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is looking into gene therapy, where an athlete's DNA might be treated to improve healing times and to boost strength and resilience.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and WADA insist that they are doing all they can to ensure drugs do not sully the Beijing Games.

But gene therapy specialist Dr Theodore Friedmann from the University of California says organisers could be faced with some unfamiliar techniques as athletes experiment with genetic tampering.

Speaking in England he says gene doping can give a sporting advantage and even help the body produce substances that are already being used to cheat, like the endurance enhancing EPO.

"It is possible to introduce genes into people and change the DNA of some of their cells, genes that affect the way muscles function or the way that they heal after injury," he said.

Although gene doping is probably still in its infancy, as techniques become more sophisticated naturally occurring hormones could be boosted or altered to enhance performance.

"In mice and in monkeys and in other tests that have been done, the animals have shown increased amount of blood production," Dr Friedmann said.

"Those mice have in fact become much stronger and much more muscular."

At the 2000 Olympics WADA introduced a test for EPO. It occurs naturally in the body but this test was designed to test those who had an artificially high level of the substance.

Back in 2000 Olympic officials dismissed a warning from sports doping campaigner Professor Chuck Yesalis.

He had made this response when asked if Sydney was likely to be a "clean games".

"No. I really don't see any difference," he said.

"I think it will be just as drug-laden as the Atlanta games and as the Barcelona games and the Seoul games."

Of the winners on the track in Sydney, women's 100-metres gold medallist Marion Jones handed back her medal in disgrace.

US sporting authorities are looking into the men's 100m winner Maurice Greene after he was named by a central figure in a major doping trial.

And Michael Johnson, who was part of the winning 4 x 400m relay team, has handed back his medal after one of his team-mates admitted to a lifetime of doping.

There will not be any tests for gene doping at the Beijing Games but samples will be kept for tests that could be developed in the future.

Professor Theodore Friedmann says WADA appears to be serious about addressing the problem, supporting a range of international studies on the subject of gene doping.

"WADA is devoting a very high percentage of its budget to research in this area. It's effective, it's producing some useful results," he said.

But he does not dispute the fact that more could be done.

"It's never enough. One always wants more," he said.

"More money means more research and more research means that we would get there sooner, no question about that," he said.

Based on an AM report by Rafael Epstein.

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