The Explainer: Gene, gene, the doping machine
First off, we did get a good response from many of you regarding a possible point-counterpoint with Padraig over the issue of stop-as-yield, the policy that would allow cyclists to simply slow down at STOP signs. I have some great input on readers on the topic, but Patrick is a little banged up this week, so we’re going to put that idea on hold for a little while.
Second, I want to thank long-time reader Ed Rubenstein for sending me an absolutely wonderful press release from the Police Department of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The department is honoring two local citizens for their efforts to stop a hit-and-run driver from scampering away from the scene after he struck cyclist Frank Pavlik.
I won’t spoil the end by describing the events. Instead, just watch the video… indeed, you ought to scroll down and watch the video before reading the press release. While I am not normally a fan of those overly intrusive cam’ systems that seem to be popping up everywhere, this is one of the cases for which I am more than willing to make an exception.
The good news is that Mr. Pavlik was not injured in the incident.
Now, back to work.
I am gonna take a shot and see if you’re willing to end your ban on doping questions.
So, I have been reading a lot about the “progress” researchers are making in the detection of illicit doping products – like CERA, EPO and NESP – and even the manipulation of blood counts by monitoring through the Biological Passport. Now, I’m beginning to wonder if all of that is worth the trouble, since it seems like the new thing in the 21st century is gene doping.
Is it detectable? If not, what the hell are we wasting millions on doping controls when the real cheaters aren’t being caught?
Okay. I have to admit, I like the topic, too. It’s a little disheartening to constantly discuss the subject, but I do really find it fascinating. So, okay, I’ll try to tackle this one … and I’ll make a habit of answering future questions on the subject, if readers are interested.
Doping has been such a common subject of dinner time discussions in our house that I even got a copy of Angela Schneider’s and Theodore Friedmann’s book “Gene Doping in Sports: The science and ethics of genetically modified athletes” for Christmas a few years back. (And you probably thought I was tough to buy for.) A lot of progress has been made in the field since that book first came out in 2006, but the field is still in its infancy and I continue to believe that it may be some time before we see gene doping making an appearance in competitive sport.
That said, the day is getting closer.
As “traditional” doping is the unwanted off-spring of progress in pharmacology, gene-doping is the evil spawn of the new science of gene therapy. Instead of altering DNA to resolve an existing mutation or attack a disease, cheaters are hoping to trigger genetic changes that will result in enhanced athletic performances.
Case in point, is something I was planning to write about last summer, right after the Tour was over (but things came up that distracted me for a few months). Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published an interesting article in the August edition of the Journal of Clinical Investigation. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s worth trying to work your way through “Loss of IL-15 receptor á alters the endurance, fatigability, and metabolic characteristics of mouse fast skeletal muscles.”
The short hand version is that the authors found the “negative regulator” of endurance. The absence of a specific gene actually allowed test subjects – in this case lab mice – to run more than six times farther than their counterparts who had the regulatory gene.
Another obvious approach, of course, is the effort to manipulate an athlete’s genetic structure in an effort to produce greater amounts of erythropoietin. Research has already shown that we could all become our own little EPO factories, cranking out red blood cells to our heart’s content.
And there’s the rub. At this point the science is still new. A few years ago, a study at France’s University of Nantes did show that genetic manipulation could “flip the switch” on erythropoietin production in mice. The problem was, however, that researchers hadn’t found the “off switch,” and the genetic manipulation resulted in the over production of red blood cells to the point the animals died of circulatory failure, heart attacks or strokes.
Of course, it may only be a matter of time before that regulatory mechanism is found. Already there are gene therapy drugs for anemic patients being produced in China and under preliminary review here in the U.S. I sure wouldn’t want to risk it, but others probably would. For long-time cycling fans, you might recall the spate of mysterious deaths of cyclists in the early ‘90s when some took a more-is-better approach to EPO and raised their hematocrit levels to 60 percent and beyond.
Assuming the safety issues are truly resolved, the problem then comes down to one of detection.
One big advantage that testers have in the effort to monitor genetic manipulation is that such gene therapies take time. The result is not instantaneous as the body undergoes gradual changes as it begins to adapt to the new genetic sequence.
The World Anti-Doping Agency has announced that it is refining and finalizing a testing method to be used in time for the 2012 Olympics in London. Financed by WADA and developed at the Universities of Tübingen and Mainz, in Germany, the test is said to be able to detect genetic manipulation that took place up to 56 days before a sample is submitted. [Gene Therapy 18, 225-231 (March 2011)]
WADA is attacking the question on several fronts and has established a “Gene Doping Expert Group,” headed by the aforementioned Theodore Friedmann. The group is overseeing the development of testing protocols and, like its Biological Passport counterpart, will be heavily involved in decisions as to whether a sample is to be flagged as positive.
Is it going to be effective? Time will tell. I remain hopeful (some have said “clueless”) but no matter what, I would reject the idea that we abandon the very notion of testing and throw open the doors to cheaters, simply because the technological stakes are constantly being raised.
P.S. – Back to racing, folks. I will be here – and on my own site, LiveUpdateGuy.com – providing up-to-the-minute reports on the action in tomorrow’s edition of Paris-Roubaix. I hope you can join me and the guests who may, or may not, wander through while we’re “on the air.”
The Explainer is a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
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