Q&A: Gene doping

by Krysia Collyer on April 13, 2009

UBC Assistant Professor of Human Kinetics James Rupert received US $275,000 from WADA to develop a prototype test to detect if an athlete had manipulated their EPO-producing gene.

Advances in gene-based technologies have sparked concerns in sports over gene doping. The prevalence of doping in sports has increased over the past decade. But now the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) are concerned about catching gene dopers.

An athlete chosing to gene dope can do so in two different manners. One way is to use gene transporters called vectors and inject them directly into a muscle. These vectors can modify an athlete’s genes, giving them performance-enhancing qualities. The second way involves modifying genes that already exist in the body by injecting viruses into cells. By doing so, scientists are able to re-engineer an athlete’s body by injecting genetic material into their cells.

Scientists believe that the first gene doped may be a gene whose function is well understood. And if that were the case, the most likely suspect would be the gene for erythropoietin (EPO). EPO is a naturally occurring hormone that tells the body to produce more blood cells. This in turn allows for more oxygen to be carried to muscles and can counteract fatigue and enhance aerobic performance.

Currently, a synthetic version of the EPO hormone is available to athletes, although it is on WADA’s banned substance list. This version of EPO has been widely used in sports like cycling and cross-country skiing, but scientists are worried that gene doping EPO would allow athlete’s to increase their ability to produce the hormone naturally and bypass the need for injections.

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