Fitter, Faster and Stronger: Olympics Athletes as Research Subjects

While the Olympics don’t officially start until tomorrow, the “anti-doping” investigation clinics are open and working well before the games begin. But this year, those who test athletes for “doping” are faced with another possible way for athletes to enhance performance: gene therapy.

Here is a link to the story, from CBC news: Gene Doping Risky for Athletes

“Some athletes and coaches will be tempted, prematurely and unwisely, to take advantage of results packaged by some as performance-enhancement ‘breakthroughs,’ even if they are untested in humans and the only ‘breakthrough’ is faster or stronger mice,” the researchers wrote. The article says gene therapy has complicated international competitions like the Olympics. Online marketing campaigns target athletes with ads focusing on how treatments can “alter muscle genes … activating your genetic machinery.”

Already, scientists doing experiments in lab animals have been approached by athletes volunteering themselves as human test subjects. The athletes want to be like the “Schwarzenegger mice” that have an extra copy of a gene that led the critters to become 30 per cent stronger.

Gene therapy isn’t new. It’s been used in a number of therapeutic ways, but in many contexts, it remains highly experimental. As a performance-enhancing agent, gene therapy has been used in animal experiments with baboons and the famous “Schwarzenegger mice” but has yet to be safely or thoroughly tested on humans.

The risk to athletes is considered potentially deadly. One of the most interesting aspects of this kind of performance-enhancing gene therapy is also the most lethal: the kinds of physiological processes that are “turned on” when this kind of gene product is injected into a person can’t be simply turned off. This lack of control over the physiological processes can lead to deadly consequences, clearly demonstrated in animal studies.

A few thoughts:

In terms of gene therapy, science is moving quickly. However, not quickly enough, it seems. The vision and hope for the science are racing ahead of even the most efficient research. And this clearly can lead to unethical and, in this case, potentially deadly consequences as athletes are being used as research subjects exposed to very high-risk experimentation.

The potential for profit creates even more pressure to use the products of scientific inquiry prematurely. The interest in using experimental gene-based enhancements on athletes is quickly growing. As noted in the CBC report, an article that will appear in Science on Feb 12 will cite an Associated Press report that gene therapy products were being surreptitiously offered to athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

One of the take-away messages here is that potential profit and great hope for a product of research creates pressure to advance the science as quickly as possible, often, much too quickly. Earlier this month, we blogged about the
Wakefield case. While this is very different, there is one similarity. The strong desire for a quick answer to the question What causes autism? and the possibility for profit from such an answer meant that unethical and unsafe science was advanced overzealously, resulting in significant harm to many. In this case, the hope to make athletes as fit, fast and strong as possible (and the subsequent potential for profit from their achievements) is driving the science of gene therapy much faster than any safe, ethical lab or researcher.

[Chris has also written about this over on the Biotech Ethics Blog
– I highly recommend reading his analysis as well]

~ by Nancy Walton on February 11, 2010.

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