It took a decade from the time the US biotech firm Amgen came out with a synthetic version of the blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin for a dependable test to depict whether athletes were utilizing it to enhance performance. In those ten years, EPO became a favorite medication of elite cyclists, cross-country skiers, and other endurance athletes.
In fact, drug regulators are usuallyplaying catch up todrug users. But next month at the Rio Olympics, officials will roll out a test for a doping method that athletes might not even be using yet–genetic manipulation of the bodys own cellular machinery, or gene doping. We feel theres a great risk this novel technology will be used, tells Carl Johan Sundberg, training exercises physiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden who reviewed the new test for the World Anti-Doping Agency. So we are being proactive for the first time.
Possibly too proactive. Steroids–which help build muscle mass and velocity recovery from hard efforts–are easy to come by. Order pills or creams from an online pharmacy; look up the best dosage and timing to avoid tripping a positive exam. But inserting a snippet of DNA into your tissue or muscle so that itll make a hormone itself? You likely require person thats read a few more books. Pediatricians and immunologists know what to do, Sundberg said at an interview at the EuroScience Open Forum in Manchester, England.
Even Sundberg acknowledges that no one has evidence of gene doping. WADAs just trying to get ahead. Unscrupulous athletes already scour academic and commercial laboratory to procure the latest substances that might give them an edge–including gene therapy targets. We have more than 1,000 clinical trials underway for various illness, he says. We also have animal run prior to the human trials. There are a number of groups that know what to do with gene therapy in animals who might support those people.
Under normal situations, human kidneys pump out EPO when the bloods oxygen furnish is operating low–say, when youre climbing up a mountain. The hormone then triggers production of more oxygen-carrying red blood cell. Hypothetically, someone could insert genes thatd induce more EPO than a body normal ability.
Until now, WADA officials have been quiet about the detailed new EPO gene-doping test, which was developed by Anna Baoutina, a molecular biologist at Australias National Measurement Institute who used to work in Russia( a country with systemic doping problems ). Her exam has two parts: One checks for the virus a scientist would use to deliver the new DNA to the body. Viruses are a good vector for gene delivery; thats already how they work, so its just a matter of replacing the viral genetic material with what it is you want to insert.
The second part of the test sequences a persons EPO genes. A normal stretch of DNA in the body has sequences called introns between the genes that create the EPO protein. But an artificial DNA sequence has all the genes right next to each other–no introns. This sequence that you introduce in gene therapy seems different than the one in your body, Sundberg says.
All this sequencing introduces a new level of complexity into drug testing. It takes a lot more technology and expertise to look for genes–sequencing machines, computers, and the people who know how to use it all–than it does to hunt for chemical byproducts in blood or urine. For Rio, all the samples have to go to Sydney, to the only laboratory in the world that can do the test. And outcomes wont be available until a month or two afterward, which could get tricky if a medalist turns out to be a genetically modified organism eight weeks after the Game are done.
Now, EPO isnt the only gene a doper could enhance. They might try for insulin growth factor to boost muscle growth, or vascular endothelial growth factor, which stimulates more blood vessels in the heart. Again , no one has evidence that this is going on.
But thats why it attains sense for WADA to try to get out in front of the activity. Technicians from the agency simply retested several hundred samples from the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics use techniques that werent available back then. Virtually 8 percent is coming positive for metabolites of various types of steroids, much worse than the 1 percent failure rate reported after the Games. Thats probably a more accurate figure, says Arne Ljungqvist, former chairman of the International Olympic Committees medical committee and former WADA vice president who also spoke in Manchester. But it entails nine of 10 athletes are clean.
So the arms race continues, with WADA itself the specific objectives of new scrutiny. The agency knew about Russias state-sponsored doping program back in 2010, but didnt act until a German Tv documentary spilled the beans last year. Rios drug-testing laboratory was de-certified by WADA, then lately re-instated. And thats all looking at traditional doping methods. Adding in gene therapy will merely make it tougher.