Professional sport has long been burdened with the possibility of athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs, (which is known as doping), to improve their performance and increase their likelihood of winning. The World Anti-Doping Agency was established in 1999, to try and prevent doping in sport, and the agency frequently carries out testing to catch the cheating athletes. However, a new hurdle has been introduced since the development of genetic modification, with a potential for athletes to turn to gene doping to improve performance.
What is Gene Doping?
Gene doping put simply, is the non-therapeutic use of genes, cells or other genetic elements to improve athletic performance. The latest research into genetic engineering has lead to this practice, which involves transferring genetic material into human cells to treat or prevent disease.
Research carried out on mice has demonstrated the ability to increase muscle mass and reverse muscle loss due to ageing, through genetic engineering. Further studies have also found similar results in creating mice which can run greater distances, for more extended periods, than mice that have been bred naturally. It’s research such as this, that has enhanced hopes of being able to genetically engineer professional athletes, calling into question the morality of such doping.
How Can Gene Doping Be Prevented?
Gene doping works by increasing the levels of proteins and hormones which our bodies would naturally make; this instantly makes it difficult for tests to reveal whether someone has been gene doping or not. This means that while gene doping is being further explored, and becomes an increasing likelihood of taking place in professional sport, the WADA needs to find new ways of testing, that will be able to uncover such methods of doping.
To appear firm against genetic engineering which could improve sports performance, WADA has now banned all forms of gene editing from sport. While gene therapy was previously forbidden, if it could be shown to have a performance-enhancing effect, this new tougher stance will ban any gene editing that alters genome sequences; but whether they have the means to enforce this ban is another question.
To date, there is no evidence to suggest that gene doping has ever been used in sport, but the increasing threat has proven enough for the governing bodies of professional sport to take a firm stand on the issue, and begin finding ways to test for it.