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Could the Olympics soon be plagued by genetically modified athletes?

By Email author - Fri, 10 Aug 2012 07:48:19 GMT
Genetically modified Olympic athletes?

GM Olympians?; Credit: © Shutterstock

There is perhaps no scandal more synonymous with the Olympics than doping. Every two years, officials go through the time-consuming process of testing athletes for both natural and synthetic performance-enhancing drugs. Test results in recent years have uncovered everything from Human Growth Hormone, or HGH, to instances of THC - the "active ingredient" in marijuana.

These tests are pretty straightforward, and are well-developed by today's scientists. They're also able to easily adapt to changing chemicals and drug formulas that some athletes might pursue. One thing they cannot detect, however, is something known as "genetic doping." In a world where everything from corn to processed foods contains a genetically modified ingredient, athletes will someday be no exception

Today, scientists are working to combat a future where some athletes take advantage of genetic modification in order to enhance their performance and overall competitiveness in major Olympic events. These tests are considered necessary in the very near future, and most scientists believe that it's only a matter of time before genetic doping becomes a major consideration for Olympic organizers and officials.

Genetic Modifications are Currently Nearly Impossible to Trace

Currently, the Olympics drug testers use a combination of blood and urine testing to look for banned substances consumed by athletes to enhance their competitive edge in major events. While these well-developed tests can easily detect performance enhancing drugs and illicit substances, they simply cannot identify genetic modifications. That's because any genetically modified DNA would be injected into the bloodstream as a virus, infiltrating human cells and placing its own DNA within them.

The virus itself would be highly developed; it would be designed to intentionally infiltrate a human cell and modify genes that control muscle growth, overall stamina, and levels of performance in Olympic athletes. Because drug tests look only for residues and chemicals left behind by drugs, and not for irregularities in human genes, the changes would go unnoticed and the virus would fly under the radar entirely.

That's a scary prospect for scientists and Olympic organizers alike. Performance enhancing genetic modifications could seriously benefit those countries rich enough - or ruthless enough - to pursue these specialized viruses. Without any mechanism for detection, their medals would be considered fairly earned, and consequences could be years, or decades, down the road.

Genetic Doping is Not a Problem...Yet

One thing that might come as a relief to some observers is that genetic doping has yet to be a major problem in the sports world at large. Of course, that could be because such doping is currently not able to be detected by widely used tests. It could also be because the technology is relatively expensive and difficult to obtain in many cases.

Even so, it's worth remembering a 2006 scandal surprised the Olympic community. It was in 2006 that a German coach was found trying to secure a genetic therapy known as Repoxygen. Commonly used as a treatment for anemia, it's also well-known as a genetic therapy that can encourage the production of extra red blood cells. Those extra red blood cells, in turn, can enhance performance and endurance in athletes during major events like those a the Olympic games.

This relatively basic incident of genetic doping happened just over six years ago, leading many scientists to wonder whether or not further incidents have occurred since those Olympic games. With no way to test for genetic doping, those scientists instead have to rely on things like whistleblowers and undercover investigations, rather than a legal DNA test that is credible and would reveal attempts to cheat the system.

An Optimistic Outlook for Proponents of Fair Competition

Though no reliable test current exists to check for incidents of genetic doping, scientists are optimistic that one will be created in the very near future. That's probably a good thing, as athletes are increasingly turning away from synthetic drugs and toward alternative methods of increasing their performance in major sporting events. As they peruse the options, genetic modification will almost certainly catch their attention. After all, it's minimally invasive, highly effective, and practically impossible to catch - just like performance-enhancing drugs several decades ago.

With the right tests and scientific development, athletes and their coaches can be kept honest and the playing field can remain level for everyone involved in the Olympic games. That's the ideal scenario for a sporting even that was created solely to encourage fair and peaceful competition among the world's best athletes.

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