Gene doping has become a reality for world
sport, well ahead of its predicted arrival. Pundits thought the Beijing Olympics
would be the first place gene doping would be detected, but reports from
Germany this week suggest athletes have been using the technique ahead of the
Turin Winter Olympics, due to start late next week.

As reported in The Globe and Mail overnight, the trial of a German athletics coach has revealed worrying evidence
that gene doping is already a reality for athletes and drug testers.

A quick science lesson. Gene doping is the
process of transferring
genes directly into human cells that blend into an athlete’s own DNA, which then enhance muscle growth
and increase strength or endurance.

In this
instance, a drug called Repoxygen, designed for gene therapy on
patients with
anaemia, is the culprit. When used by athletes, it induces the release
of erythropoietin, or EPO, which stimulates the creation of red blood
cells to carry more oxygen to muscles.

While the International Olympic Committee
and the World
Anti-Doping Agency have a test for synthetic EPO, there is currently no test
for Repoxygen, which gives the body the gene to stimulate
EPO production on its own.

The language being used to describe the
development should be very worrying for any athletes using it. As Owen Slot
wrote in this morning’s Australian,
“the grim new world of gene doping” has long been viewed as the “apocalyptic
future of performance-enhancement in sport.”

Perhaps more worryingly for athletes, the
prototype never made it into production because Oxford Biomedica, the drug’s
developers, thought it didn’t stand a chance on the open market.

It would take a sophisticated lab to
produce it, which “would be very irresponsible,” according to Alan Kingsman,
chief executive of Oxford Biomedica. “For a start, we only went as far as
testing it on mice. To use it on the human body would be playing with fire.”

If we know athletes competing in Turin are using it,
does that raise suspicions about athletes
competing in the Melbourne Commonwealth Games?