Genetic enhancements may be on horizon for athletes
February 20, 2002 Posted: 3:47 PM EST (2047 GMT)



From Rea Blakey
CNN Medical Unit

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Doping scandals have become an almost routine part of modern sporting competitions, including the Olympics. But many sports scientists warn that performance-enhancing drugs may be a thing of the past when it comes to illicit ways to win.

Scientists on the forefront of genetic manipulation predict that in as little as five to 15 years, athletes may be using genetic engineering to get the edge over their opponents.

For instance, techniques evolved from animal research at the University of Pittsburgh could potentially be used to heal sports injuries and enhance athletic performance. Scientists are injecting stem cells into muscle cells in hopes of helping children with muscular dystrophy.

"The growth factor that we're using, the stem cells that we're using, the gene therapy that we have been performing, can be used to improve the strength of a muscle," says Johnny Huard, of the university's molecular genetics department.

That means if the experiments work safely in humans, the technique could be used to increase an athlete's strength and endurance, raising a host of troublesome new issues for sporting officials.

"Genetic engineering will pose some very difficult problems for sport," says Larry Bowers of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, not least because it could be difficult -- if not impossible -- to detect.

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Freddie Fu of the University of Pittsburgh agrees. "It's going to be a whole new ballgame," he says.

That's because for now, detecting a genetically modified muscle requires a biopsy of the tissue -- not a realistic proposition for an athlete about to compete.

But researchers are looking for ways to make detection easier.

"What we're trying to do in our lab as well is to try to detect byproducts of those stem cells and growth factors that you can maybe detect in the blood, so in a way they will be able to test those athletes later on," Huard explains.

But many athletes and coaches are open to the prospect.

"Certainly athletes are always looking to improve their performance as best as possible," says U.S. Olympic figure skater Michael Weiss, who has been tested several times over the past three months to make sure he's drug-free.

"Most athletes that are at the Olympic level are willing to commit to just about anything that would give them the edge," explains Weiss' coach, Audrey Wesinger. "I think (genetic engineering) has to be done in a scientifically sound manner where it's ethical and also very highly regulated."

"If I can have a doctor's approval on things, I am the first person to sign up for it," she adds.