The idea that an athlete could change their genes to grow bigger muscles, or increase their body’s production of red blood cells, may sound like the stuff of fantasy, but halting the development of ‘gene doping’ technology is one of the main research priorities of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), according to Dr Olivier Rabin, the organisation’s science director.
Can you tell us about the latest research in the field of anti-doping?
‘Currently at WADA, we are developing and validating technologies to detect gene doping, which is certainly one of our main focuses at the moment. The technology behind gene doping is very innovative and very intrusive. It involves taking a gene that has the potential to enhance performance – whether it be by boosting blood production, muscle growth or energy metabolism – and introducing it to the body, without really knowing the risks.’
That sounds dangerous…
‘Yes, but the world of elite sport is so competitive that some athletes are prepared to take the risks and try it. I’ve heard stories of leading scientists who, after they’ve given talks on gene therapy at conferences, have been approached by athletes who say: “Inject me with your technology, I’m ready to take it”.
‘An elite athlete in their twenties has an extremely healthy body, and feels immortal. But the reality is that in the nineties several young athletes died from abusing pharmacology for doping purposes. With our research, we are hoping to put a stop to the development of gene doping.’
Where is the research being carried out?
‘Our research is conducted with the support of WADA-accredited anti-doping laboratories (labs that are certified by WADA to test human samples), though the leading research teams are usually academic teams or private companies. We provide the resources, the guidance and the framework. The research team often pairs with an anti-doping lab to develop the technology, or to transfer the technology and apply it to the anti-doping field.
‘We are a global organisation so we support projects all around the globe, but we have to acknowledge that the lion’s share of the research is coming from EU countries, mainly because there is a long history of the fight against doping in Europe.’
Why is this a big issue for Europe?
‘Before being adopted by the International Olympic Committee, anti-doping originated from two major sports: track and field and cycling, both of which were very popular in Europe, so there’s a kind of historical nucleus of anti-doping science in the EU. A lot of the rules came from the sport movements themselves, but European parliaments started to take an interest and many rules were developed from there. More than half of our WADA-accredited laboratories (17 out of 33) are based in the EU so that’s a high level of concentrated expertise.’
Are there any particularly interesting research projects in Europe you can talk about?
‘Right now EU countries are leading in research projects in the proteomic field (studying proteins expressed by genes), where we try to establish molecular signatures to detect doping. It’s very similar to what is being conducted in the medical diagnostic field where you try to use markers like genes or proteins to derive macromolecular signatures revealing pathologies.’
‘With our research, we are hoping to put a stop to the development of gene doping.’
Dr Olivier Rabin, science director, WADA
How do you choose which research projects to support?
‘We have priority themes, like gene doping, but it could also be the detection of peptides and hormones. We are also very interested in the transfer of technologies. For example, there are other fields not connected to anti-doping that are using technologies that we can apply. We want to support projects that allow us to make the leap from this technology to our field.’
Is anti-doping, as it has sometimes been described in the media, an ‘arms race’ against criminal elements?
‘It could be described that way. Elite athletes have significant resources to access technologies – in the fields of nutrition, optimisation of performance, coaching, training – and the technology is often cutting edge. It’s a constant fight to try to detect new substances, some of which are very similar or even sometimes identical to those that circulate naturally in the body. And it’s not necessarily the athlete who is to blame; sometimes it’s their entourage, like their coaches, trainers, physicians or even their family. Sometimes the athletes are provided with substances unbeknown to them. This is the kind of environment we want to expose as well.’
How do you communicate with other anti-doping bodies and the authorities?
One of ‘the greatest challenges the anti-doping community faces is that we need to continually improve how we communicate amongst ourselves, and to utlise the network we have to its full potential. The fact is that people work in fields extremely similar to ours, and yet often we do not know what they are doing, and vice-versa. The very kinds of criminal activities that we are trying to combat are able to grow because we are not sharing information across borders effectively enough.
‘WADA has memoranda of understanding with certain bodies such as Interpol, and the World Customs Organisation, and we are working on building a common, standard language for communicating about doping so that the whole anti-doping community shares information better, and is able to benefit. This is something that is stressed in the revised version of the World Anti-Doping Code. We also have regular doping-related discussions with governments, the European Commission and the Council of Europe.’
What about the legal aspects of WADA’s role?
‘We operate in a very legal environment, and we are often up against people with a lot of financial resources. WADA’s annual budget is around EUR 21 million, which is less than what some of these athletes earn in a year. We impose sanctions, such as two- or four-year bans, or even lifetime bans in some cases, so we need to put our best science into developing tools in order to reveal without any doubt that doping has occurred.
‘Most people are familiar with this punitive, sanctioning role of WADA. but there’s also a lot of education involved. Sometimes an athlete’s team contacts us because they want to know if a particular substance or technology is allowed or prohibited. Athlete awareness, and increasingly education, are crucial parts of anti-doping’s strategy. At WADA we place great importance on ensuring that athletes and their entourage are aware of their responsibilities, but also that the young, the athletes of tomorrow, are educated on the dangers of doping so that they do not make the same mistakes as some athletes do today.’
Do you have anything in development for the next Olympics?
‘It’s something I am asked quite a lot, but WADA is constantly working. There are always new molecules coming onto the market or in development by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. When we feel ready with a new innovation to detect doping (and not only on a scientific level but also when it’s legally foolproof) we release it. And besides, there are always world championships in something or other around the world.’
The idea behind gene doping has emerged from gene therapy, where researchers are developing ways to insert DNA into the cells of a patient in order to repair or replace damaged DNA. This could be done by injecting a person with a carrier, such as a virus, that transports the DNA through the bloodstream and into the cells.
While technology that would enable sportspeople to ‘tweak’ genes associated with fitness or sporting ability is still far-off, sports authorities such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) are concerned that the technology could be used by healthy athletes to enhance performance. Genes such as EPO – responsible for red blood cell production – are already available to buy on the internet. While no evidence has ever been found of gene doping, the fear is that athletes could insert the gene directly into their muscle, which could give them a temporary performance boost.
Playing with DNA in this way poses a number of potential health risks. When scientists tested the gene EPO in mice they found that it led to lethal thickening of the blood. WADA banned gene doping in 2003 and is working on tools for detecting the practice.
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