908 days to go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2006, 12:00am

It was an apocalyptic prediction that many hoped and prayed would take years to materialise. Only two months ago, Dick Pound from the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) told a conference: 'You would have to be blind not to see that the next generation of doping will be genetic.'

Gene doping, which is banned in sport but currently cannot be tested for, involves transferring genes into human cells to mix in with an athlete's DNA in the hope of stimulating muscle growth and increasing strength or endurance: creating genetically modified athletes.

While technically possible, most scientists believed it was still far from being a reality as research in the field is still in its infancy. But last week a court in Germany stumbled upon the fact that a generation of a dangerous new sporting world had apparently arrived.

In the dock sat Thomas Springstein, until recently one of Germany's top athletics coaches who stood accused of supplying his female athletes with a steady stream of steroids. When police raided his home, not only did they remove 20 chemical substances - only 12 of which have yet been identified - but they also took a peek at his computer.

Among the scores of e-mails that were read out in court, one reverberated through the sporting world. In an exchange with a doctor from a Dutch speed-skating club the German ordered more Repoxygen - a substance used in gene therapy - and complained that it was difficult to get a steady supply.

Repoxygen was designed for people with anemia as it gives the body the gene to stimulate erythropoietin, or EPO, production. EPO induces the production of red blood cells so more oxygen is carried to the muscles.

This means increased stamina and for drug cheats it sounds simple: instead of injecting themselves with synthetic EPO - which can be detected in tests - they could inject the gene that produces the EPO, which would allow the body to naturally produce more red blood cells.

In terms of medical research, gene therapy potentially represents a giant leap forward and many in the field believe that this technology, once perfected, can be used to treat Parkinson's Disease or cystic fibrosis, for example.

Once a defective cell has been identified, scientists can inject a functioning gene, usually via a disabled virus. When the virus hits the targeted cells it unloads the normal genes, which can then produce the proteins and enzymes.

From early on people have feared that rogue elements would use the technology to attempt to create supermen and women, and inevitably some athletes would find the lure of becoming faster and stronger through tinkering with their genes too strong to resist.

In laboratories around the world, scientists are using gene therapy to produce mice with abnormally big muscles. These souped-up rodents are stronger, faster and can jump higher than the other mice - citius, altius, fortius mice. If mice held Olympic Games, this breed would win medals by a good deal more than a whisker. So why not genetically tweak and tone athletes, too?

Aside from ethical or moral considerations, while it sounds fairly straightforward in theory, in practice gene therapy for humans is not well developed and is highly risky. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of patients suffering from a variety of diseases have taken part in clinical gene therapy trials. Some have suffered adverse effects and a few have even died. So as a science it is still very much in the experimentation phase. Nonetheless, there are more than 10,000 clinics around the world carrying out gene therapy trials at present and Wada believes some labs would be willing to conduct experimental gene doping.

Those inclined to enter the realm of gene doping are encouraged by the fact there are no effective tests in place to detect it. In a counter move, Wada is funding a host of projects that aim to come up with tests that one day can be used. There is hope, scientists say. For instance, a gene addition would have consequences, such as the increased production of a particular enzyme or protein, which should be detectable in a lab.

It's too late to do anything about gene dopers in Turin, so the battle lines will be drawn in Beijing. Helping to draw up the battle plan is Zhao Jian, the director of China's anti-doping commission, who is going to have his hands full over the coming 21/2 years. His team's first task is to try to keep Chinese Olympic athletes on the straight and narrow, and far away from banned chemical substances. Hosting the games was a huge source of national pride, he said, and the last thing China wanted was to have that tarnished by host athletes being exposed as drug cheats during the games.

Last year Zhao's commission tested nearly 5,400 Chinese athletes, 66 per cent of them in out-of-competition tests. Of those, 28 tested positive, as did a 15-year-old Chinese swimmer who was tested by the international federation in an out-of-competition test.

'The message we're sending out to the Chinese competitors is don't take drugs, and if you do, you'll be caught,' said Zhao.