A new breed of sports doping called gene therapy is making waves in Europe as athletes are clamoring to get their hands on this procedure. There are even reports that “Schwarzenegger mice” have been created from normal mice being given gene therapy which packed on muscle and increased their strength by 30 percent.
Runners and bodybuilders… two groups of athletes who, at first glance, don’t really seem to have that much in common. And anybody can see this just by looking at their physiques, which comes out to be the most obvious difference between the two. But there is a connection between the groups in the form of a new type of science which has tons of coaches and athletes alike rushing to be a part of it.
Actually, they’re rushing to be guinea pigs in this new process that is called gene therapy. The rush has become so crazy that one high school football coach even went as far as to offer his entire team up to be test subjects of a therapy which no one really knows the full details about yet. Many people are starting to wonder just what started this gene therapy madness among people in the sports world. The answer to this question lies in a remote lab near Oxford, England.
However, researchers at the lab never intended to invent the next big thing in sports. Their interests were focused on creating a new gene therapy drug that could battle anemia. And thus Repoxygen was born! Unfortunately for the lab, the pharmaceutical company decided that Repoxygen wouldn’t be very profitable to sell and so the drug was put off to the side.
But while anemia patients weren’t exactly jumping to get their hands on the shelved drug, there was a small group of people who were anxious to get a hold of the drug. Spearheading this group was a world-class German track coach by the name of Thomas Springstein.
Springstein had a noted reputation for tutoring some of the best track and field athletes that the world had to offer and was always looking for a way to give the runners under his tutelage a boost – no matter how drastic the measures. And when he heard about the drug Repoxygen, it was an opportunity that was too good to be true.
He found out that Repoxygen plants a specialized gene into a person’s DNA and the gene helps cells make more erythropoietin (EPO). EPO increases the amount of red blood cells made in the body which is especially important to runners since red blood cells mean more oxygen to the muscles and increased running performance. To top all of this off, Repoxygen is undetectable in an athlete’s system which could bypass much of the stringent testing often performed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Like many other types of gene therapy, Repoxygen works through the form of a virus that, when introduced into a person’s body, enters their host cells and changes DNA. As the cells begin to multiply, they pass on new DNA as well which can change the makeup of an athlete’s body and athletic performance.
Rumors of a drug that could replicate an athlete’s genetic code, maybe even alter it, were certainly of incredible importance to any coach, especially a fearless one such as Springstein. So he tried everything he could to get his hands on it but kept coming up empty-handed. He even e-mailed people begging them to give him any leads they could on how to get the drug. And that’s when it happened... He got nabbed.
Thomas Springstein got busted by sports authorities for handing out performance-enhancing drugs to runners. And the weird part about it was that many of the runners didn’t even know that he was doing it either. One of the runners he gave drugs to, hurdler Anne-Kathrin Elbe, said Springstein gave her illegal performance enhancers at the age of 16 under the disguise of vitamins.
His trial went to court and it received a lot of media attention across Europe. Springstein’s e-mails, which were used against him in court, helped to incriminate him but also helped to spread the word about gene therapy across the continent as hundreds of websites and newspapers were covering the trial and calling gene doping the new era of illegal performance enhancement.
Ever since then, there have been wannabe gene dopers combing the Internet searching for ways to get a hold of Repoxygen and similar drugs. Some websites are even going as far as to say that they sell the EPO producing drug even though Oxford BioMedica, the company that developed it, already has the patent and isn’t giving it away for sports purposes.
But runners looking for the endurance raising effects of EPO producing drugs aren’t the only ones interested in gene doping. People involved in sports that require a high level of strength and muscle such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, and football are also actively seeking gene doping methods.
After all, gene doping has been known to produce incredible muscle and strength gains ever since the late 90’s when a United States lab produced “Schwarzenegger mice” using the therapy. Seeking a treatment for different types of muscle wasting diseases, a University of Pennsylvania molecular physiologist named H. Lee Sweeney decided to conduct an experiment using the protein IGF-1 on mice.
After injecting certain mice with an IGF-1 gene, Sweeney observed that the ones who’d been injected packed on lots of muscle and grew about 30 percent stronger than they were before. It was obvious that the gene therapy produced results and after Sweeney went public with his research findings, the phone call flood began.
A ridiculous amount of coaches and athletes shamelessly harassed Sweeney and tried anything to be a part of what he was doing such as the before mentioned football coach who offered up his whole team as an experiment. As he said, “People would try to entice me, saying things like, ‘It’ll help advance your research.’ Some offered to pay me.”
Even today people continue to bug Sweeney about being a part of his research as he explained, “Every time there’s a story about our research or any research similar to ours, we get more calls.” Even after he tells them the risks of being involved in gene therapy, which includes infection, rejection, and organ failure, they still say, “O.K. when can we start?”
The process of gene therapy for muscle enhancement definitely still needs more work as indicated by the possible side effects that H. Lee Sweeney mentioned. The same can be said of the EPO inducing Repoxygen which is still under heavy criticism for sports usage.
This is especially true after a 1998 study was dug up where baboons were injected with an EPO producer similar to Repoxygen. The injection definitely caused EPO production, but at an uncontrolled and dangerous pace. The pace of red blood cells being introduced became so rapid that the baboons had to have their blood drained because their circulatory system was being blocked up. Another study with monkeys and EPO left the animals with viral infections that stopped red blood cell reproduction for good and the monkeys had to be put to sleep.
Besides the health risks one takes with Repoxygen, or any other form of gene doping, another problem on the horizon for coaches and athletes trying to enter this world is that WADA and other sports organizations are already trying to play catch-up. In response to a growing concern that the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China will be the first to have gene dopers involved, WADA has led the effort to develop a reliable test for the process.
They began by banning gene doping in 2003, though it didn’t do much good since biopsies of muscle tissue is the only way to detect it. So it has been said that they will freeze blood and urine samples from many athletes as they continue to work on developing the test which they believe will be completed in the near future.
But despite the fact that sports organizations are tying to develop full proof tests and there are obvious health concerns, there are still plenty competitors and coaches who haven’t wavered from their quest to gene dope. And while we know sport governing bodies will never back off of their stances, there is still optimism for these people in the hope that gene therapy for sports purposes will be safe and reliable one day.
That’s because gene therapy has succeeded in other industries. The orthopedic industry is one that has seen some success as a Harvard orthopedic surgery professor named Chris Evans has found a gene that might possibly be the cure for osteoarthritis. He’s performed test on horses already and has plans to test his gene therapy on people towards the end of this year.
Just like H. Lee Sweeney, Evans has had people ask him if they can participate in his studies as he said, “I’ve had lots of people volunteer. Some of them are my friends, middle-aged weekend athletes whose knees are shot.” But he’s not worried about furthering athletic performance either as he stated, “It is possible they could create stronger joints. They could train harder without risking joint injury. But that’s not the point of our research. We’re trying to treat disease.”
Despite the views from people like Sweeney and Evans as well as companies such as Oxford BioMedica on gene therapy being solely for disease treatment and not athletics, many trainers, coaches, and other sports people are going to do their best to get a hold of what may be the biggest thing to hit sports since steroids and human growth hormone. Who knows, if certain gene therapies become more safe and reliable, it may one day become the ultimate form of athletic enhancement.
Yours in sport,