Gene Doping

GQ, Aug 2005

Lab of Honour: Genetic doping in sport has put the future of fair play under the microscope.


For the last couple of years, the biggest furore in American sports has been the steroids scandal in baseball. Take the most flag-wrapped sport in a nation gone mad with patriotism, and add drugs, a thousand angry Little League coaches talking about role models and demanding congressional hearings and you’re close – it’s a steroids scandal on steroids. Barry Bonds and Jose Fonseca have been charged not just with cheating, but with defiling a national treasure. They may as well have injecting their poisonous anabolics into Mom’s apple pie itself.

Meanwhile in Virginia, the scientists at DARPA, the Pentagon’s top secret Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency continue to pursue technologies that will render steroids as archaic and puny as the silicone chip did the abacus. Ask any scientist and he’ll tell you – anabolics are so last century. The next giant leap in athletic enhancement is genetic not pharmacological. By tweaking our DNA – meddling with our very cells from the mitochondria up – we can create Olympic athletes, even superhumans of us all. DARPA’s Joe Bielitzki says “we want every war fighter to look like Lance Armstrong as far as metabolic profile goes.”

Naturally, as a Pentagon-funded enterprise, DARPA is focussed chiefly on creating super-soldiers. But the enhancements they’re aiming for have immense civilian repercussions. Ongoing projects include work on vaccines that block pain in 10 seconds, regenesis programs which literally grow back damaged tissue in record time, the ability to stem bleeding by the power of concentration alone and increasing oxygen efficiency to the point where we can sprint for 15 minutes on 1 breath of air.

If it all sounds a bit Philip K Dick, that’s because DARPA is the most forward-looking, out-there genetic science program in the world. But gene manipulation is no futuristic fantasy. It’s widely believed to hold the key to cures for Parkinson’s, muscular dystrophy and certain cancers. And it doesn’t take a visionary to see the sporting applications.

Already the World Anti-Doping Agency, which governs Olympic drug testing, has established a panel to monitor ‘gene doping’, as it’s known. They know that athletes are always first in line as guinea pigs. And they know this stuff works – they’ve seen Dr Sweeney’s mice. Back in 1998 – eons ago, in research terms – Dr H Lee Sweeney from the University of Pennsylvania created “Schwarzenegger mice”, big muscular rodents with massive haunches and necks bigger than their heads. He had hoped to help with the muscle wasting that comes with aging or muscular dystrophy. Instead, he was deluged by calls from athletes. One offered $100,000. Another coach asked Sweeney to treat his entire high school football team. Sweeney estimates that genetically modified athletes could well be competing as soon as the 2008 Olympics

“We’re riding a curve of exponential change and it’s transforming no less than human nature,” writes Joel Garreau, in his fascinating book, “Radical Evolution – the Promise And Peril of Enhancing Our Minds And Bodies”. He argues that human race is at an inflection point – that tinkering with our genes will ultimately redefine what “human” means, life will never be the same again. Garreau has identified the GRIN technologies – genetic, robotic, information and nanoprocesses (the tiny tiny tiny stuff) – all 4 branches of which are intertwining and pushing each other along at such a pace that society is struggling to keep up, more content to palm it off as sci-fi. But genuine upheavals are ahead of us. Certainly in the next 20 years, perhaps before the decade is out. He paints scenarios in which the earth is populated by two classes of human for the first time since Cro-Magnon man lived alongside Homo Sapiens. There are those who embrace the genetic enhancements, and so become stronger, quicker, less disease-prone, smarter, more energetic and more likely to live a longer life; and there are those who don’t, either because they are suspicious of the technology, or they just can’t afford it. For the first time human beings will be the architects of their own evolution and whether this march ends in Hell or Heaven is less in the hands of scientists than politicians.

Already sports, which by its nature is at the leading edge of human potential, has become an arena of lively debates on the subject. One concern is that traditional drug testing is likely to be ineffective – gene doping is notoriously hard to detect since the products are proteins similar, if not identical, to the body’s versions. But then perhaps testing won’t be such an issue. One thing the steroids scandal shows is that we are conflicted when it comes to human enhancement. Certainly the outrage that was visited on the East German Olympic team in the 1970s has passed. And sad as it may be that poor Babe Ruth’s world records were smashed by a drugged up bull-neck, and as grotesque as steroid-enhanced athletes look, there is something to be said for phenomenal performance. Taboos about enhancement – gene or steroid – may be lifting under the weight of inevitability. After all, the ethical problems surrounding enhancement in sport often have less to do with the actual enhancement – it’s the cheating that’s the problem with doping, not the ‘dope’. Already competitive bodybuilding has separate contests for naturals and for the drug-enhanced. And in an age of Viagra, who among us can cast the first stone when it comes to performance enhancing drugs?

In 2000, a boy was born in Berlin with pronounced musculature around the calves and arms. At the age of four he was showing phenomenal strength – he could hold out at arms length a 6.6lb weight in each arm. Doctors discovered that he had a mutant gene, the myostatin gene, which affects muscle growth, but was otherwise perfectly healthy. And naturally work has long been underway on producing a drug that mimics the effects of the gene to assist muscular dystrophy patients.

But he raises an interesting question: should this boy be allowed to compete in the Olympics? And if so, why shouldn’t his competitors share the same genetic advantage? After all, isn’t sports full of genetically gifted people – nature herself is hardly even handed when it comes to our athletic DNA. Despite what coaches like to tell us, it’s primarily DNA, not hard work, that separates Lance Armstrong from the rest of us. Might gene doping go some way to leveling the playing field, even improving the level of competition?

It’s possible that gene doping may yet shift the paradigm of sports. The very nature of athletic achievement comes into question when athletes are engineered like race cars. As Theodore Friedmann, director of the Gene therapy program at the University of California, says, “if sport is going to masquerade as biotech, that should raise a question in the minds of the public – what are we watching? Sports to me is about doing as much with your body as you can. I’d like to admire an achievement without wondering whose achievement it really is. But maybe I’m obeying some old romantic rules that are probably gone.”