Genetic cheaters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2003, 12:00am

Physical supremacy has always played a large part in sport and the desire to win at any cost has led to widespread misuse of artificial substances. With the recent scientific discoveries in DNA mapping, athletes could potentially see a huge transformation in both their physique and performance.

Essentially, humans are 99.9 per cent the same. By decoding DNA, scientists are now able to identify the genes that make us that 0.1 per cent unique. According to one genetic scientist, Francis Fukuyama, this discovery will allow science to create a super human being.

The highest level of competition in sport is often fought off the field. It's well documented that some elite athletes will stop at nothing to gain a competitive edge. The financial gain from an Olympic medal or professional contract is so prized that such athletes willingly risk everything, including their lives, to be the best.

At the recent Sydney Olympics, scientists predicted that in the near future the use of hormones such as EPO (erithropotein-a hormone, used by endurance athletes to increase red blood cell count and therefore oxygen uptake) or anabolic steroids (used to increase strength and power) would make way for genetic manipulation.

Scientists believe that within 10 years gene therapy will allow athletes to tailor their bodies. Currently, embryos are being screened for favourable traits and doctors will be able to add artificial chromosomes to a parent's DNA. Scientists have already injected a certain gene into mice, causing their muscle mass to increase by 60 per cent. Possibly through a vaccine, genetic alteration may well change the muscle's structure. The International Olympic Committee has asked the same scientists to help find a way of detecting genetic manipulation. This may be difficult as injecting a gene is virtually undetectable. At present, the only way to detect gene manipulation is through a muscle biopsy (where part of the muscle is removed) and very few athletes would recover from such an operation in time to compete.

How exactly is genetic manipulation going to create super athletes? Success in sport is the direct result of specific genes interacting with the training environment. No matter how many physical genes you have, you still have to train to develop your natural abilities. Even more importantly, an athlete must train specifically for a given sport. It's how individuals respond to this training that varies in each athlete. According to scientists, genetics are more responsible for structural characteristics such as height and weight and less important for functional characteristics, which are more influenced by the type of training.

A number of different factors, including age and previous training, interact with the genes which results in a response to current training. Specifically it's the response of the skeletal muscle (muscle mass, composition, metabolic properties) that piques the interest of scientists, particularly the muscle fibre type and its contribution to specific sports.

Human genes can be altered or manipulated in two ways: to treat disease (somatic cell alteration) or by permanently changing a gene to prevent disease or change a personality trait (germ cell alteration). It's the actual alteration of the genes that's causing most of the controversy especially in sporting circles. Examples of how gene transfer techniques can help athletes include the increase of certain growth factors (for example, cartilage, tendons and ligaments) to aid in the healing of injuries or through gene therapy, identifying certain genes that would predispose an athlete to illness or alternatively, genes that may protect the athlete.

There's also interest in identifying children who have certain genes that would allow them to develop into world-class athletes. Historically, complex tests and measurements have been used to identify talented youngsters. While early research doubts there is a specific 'sport gene', certain genes are a definite advantage in certain sports. There's speculation that once these genes are found and labelled, then embryos may be pre-selected for future athletic success. Elite athletes may even be sought-after as donors for this type of gene farming.

By solving the riddle of DNA, scientists have now created the potential for preventing and treating many illnesses and injuries. But it has also created the temptation and potential for abuse to produce a race of super-human beings. Other ethical and moral questions regarding discrimination will become more apparent as the technology develops. One question already raised by scientists looking to identify athletic children is that if a child knows they lack the gene to make them active will they be less likely to participate in sports? Also, will sport programmes discriminate against children who aren't genetically gifted and create an even more 'win at all costs' atmosphere? Whether we want to live with this transformation is the question.