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Athletes Becoming Nonhuman

When thinking about the upcoming Oympics, it?s worth noting that athletes are using drugs and medical techniques in order to beat former world records to the extent that some of them are becoming almost nonhuman. Scientists are starting to think about what kinds of medical intervention athletes may undergo in the future.

We may be watching genetically-modified (GM) athletes at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, according to Charles Yesalis, an expert in performance enhancing drugs at Pennsylvania State University. Gene doping, in which athletes genetically modify themselves with performance enhancing DNA, will soon be possible to achieve and almost impossible to detect, according to Peter Schjerling at the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center in Denmark.

Schjerling believes athletes will avoid detection by injecting themselves with copies of genes naturally present in the body, such as those encoding growth factors or testosterone.

One possibility would be to inject the gene for erythropoietin (EPO), a protein that boosts red blood cell count. This allows an athlete?s blood to carry more oxygen. In 1998, a whole cycling team was thrown out of the Tour de France for using EPO. But while it is possible to spot the synthetic protein currently used, EPO from introduced genes would be identical to natural EPO.

Another possible therapy is vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Sanjay Rajagopalan and his colleagues at the University of Michigan have used a GM virus to deliver the VEGF gene to patients with peripheral atherosclerotic disease. This painful disease results in the constriction of blood vessels to the limbs and can result in patients losing a limb.

The therapy boosts VEGF levels, which widens blood vessels. But athletes could use the therapy to increase the blood supply to their muscles, in order to enhance performance.This gene therapy technique employs the common cold virus to deliver the VEGF gene to cells, so even detecting the virus would not prove an athlete had been cheating.

Yesalis is extremely pessimistic about the International Olympic Committee?s ability to catch athletes who doctor themselves in this way. ?There is a gross epidemic of drug use in sport at the moment, so why should I expect any great success against gene therapy?? he says. ?Currently the battle is over who has the best chemists, in the future it will be who has the best gene therapists.?

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