DNA `edge' creates new sports worry

Scientists concerned about `gene doping'

February 03, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

For years after he won two gold medals in the 1964 Winter Games, Eero Mantyranta was dogged by rumors of deceit: The Finnish cross-country skier had something in his blood, people whispered, something that had given him an edge.

He never failed a drug test - but the rumors turned out to be true.

Scientists eventually discovered that Mantyranta harbored a rare mutation in his DNA, a genetic quirk that caused his body to crank out more red blood cells than the average athlete. The extra cells bathed his laboring muscles in oxygen, providing the boost he needed to glide past competitors.

Now, on the eve of the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, sports officials and scientists fear the day may not be far off when athletes born without such lucky genes could simply add them later, cheating not with drugs but DNA.

It's called "gene doping," and the idea behind it is simple: to hijack gene therapy techniques for curing disease to become better, stronger, faster. Unlike drugs, such genetic tinkering would be all but impossible to detect, scientists say.

Nobody expects genetically enhanced super jocks to turn up in Salt Lake City - the technology isn't there yet. But the World Anti-Doping Agency, which leads the charge against drugs in sports, is concerned enough about future events that it's planning a summit on gene doping next month in New York. Officials are eager to gain an edge on dishonest athletes, but after more than three decades of playing catch-up, few are optimistic.

"Athletes are probably already ahead of us," says Theodore Friedmann, director of the human gene therapy program at the University of California at San Diego and a conference organizer. "They've always used whatever they needed to win. Death is a secondary consideration."

Ancient Greek athletes, historians know, popped hallucinogenic mushrooms. Roman gladiators took the equivalent of speed before entering the Circus Maximus. Victorian-era jocks routinely used a variety of performance-enhancing chemicals, including caffeine, alcohol, nitroglycerine, ether, heroin, cocaine - even strychnine, a stimulant more famous for its role in rat poison.

Although drug tests for racehorses were initiated as early as 1910, doping among two-legged athletes was mostly ignored until the 1960s, when drugs were blamed for a rash of high-profile deaths in international cycling. The first Olympic drug tests were conducted in 1968 at the Mexico City games.

Officials ban a long list of stimulants, narcotics, steroids, hormones and beta blockers. Most are detectable with a urine or blood test - 3,500 of which are being given to Salt Lake City athletes before the opening ceremonies this week. The notion of genetically engineered athletes may sound like science fiction, but researchers working on therapies for atherosclerosis, cystic fibrosis and other diseases have pinpointed genes that have the potential to become popular in the locker room.

Take research subject No. F66-52, aka "Mighty Mouse."

Caged in the cluttered and somewhat smelly laboratory of Johns Hopkins molecular biologist Se-Jin Lee, F66-52 is not your ordinary rodent. As Lee attempts to remove the furry brown lump from its pen, Mighty Mouse clings stubbornly to the cage bars. "He's just flexing to show off," jokes Lee.

But it's true: This rodent is ripped. Every time F66-52 squirms, thick knots of muscle ripple visibly beneath its shoulders and rump. An unaltered mouse cowering in the corner of a nearby cage looks wimpy by comparison. To create Mighty Mouse, Lee and his team blocked the action of myostatin, a gene the Hopkins researchers have found plays a key -albeit mysterious - role in muscle development. Blocking the gene causes muscles to balloon. The strongest of these genetically altered mice have four times the muscle mass of a typical rodent and weigh about 30 percent more, Lee says.

The genetic tinkering hasn't resulted in any noticeable health problems - although, Lee says, his muscle-bound mice appear a tad more docile. Like other scientists working with so-called "Schwarzenegger" mice, Lee hopes his research leads to new drugs for people with muscular dystrophy, cancer and other conditions that cause muscles to wither. But he knows the sick aren't the only ones who may find myostatin irresistible. "Clearly, there's going to be the potential for abuse," Lee says.

Genes that beef up muscles would be ideal for sprinters, lifters and athletes who need quick bursts of power. Marathoners, cross-country skiers and others who prize endurance could get a boost from genes that affect the blood.

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