By Stephen Wilson
LONDON, Jan. 26. IN today's high-tech world of doping, the drug cheaters usually are a step ahead of the drug testers. This time, the testers are determined to seize the upper hand. World doping experts and Olympic officials are joining forces with
the scientific community to stay ahead in what many believe will be the next frontier in performance-enhancement — genetic manipulation.
A special conference on the potential misuse of gene therapy by athletes will be held Sept. 23-26 in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., officials told The Associated Press on Thursday. Some 30 to 35 sports administrators, drug testers, geneticists and
other experts will meet in private workshops to consider ways of heading off the use of gene transfers for improving strength and endurance.
The initiative is spearheaded by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), a two-year-old body coordinating a global campaign against the use of banned drugs in sports.
The International Olympic Committee, which also has been monitoring developments in gene therapy, had planned to organize its own conference on the issue this year. But with WADA taking the lead, the IOC is
looking to merge efforts with the doping agency. "The geneticist doesn't know a lot about the world of athletics, and the world of athletics doesn't know what is happening in the gene therapy world," said Theodore Friedmann, one of the world's leading experts on gene therapy and a member of WADA's medical research committee.
"This is an opportunity for both camps to bring themselves up to date on the state of the art and what the potential dangers are in athletics through genetic manipulation."
Major advancements have been made recently in the field of gene therapy, which involves injecting the body with new genes that produce therapeutic proteins meant to block disease. The technique — still in the experimental stage — is designed to treat, cure or prevent disease. But, in this win-at-all-cost age, authorities fear some people will try to use gene therapy for securing a competitive edge on the playing field.
"There was always a concern that techniques for introducing genes to correct disease might also be techniques to manipulate other human traits," said Friedmann, director of the gene therapy program at the University of California-San Diego. "It finally dawned on a lot of people that the technique was maturing rapidly that might allow the introduction of genes to enhance athletic ability."
Two of the most commonly used banned drugs in sport are
erythropoietin, or EPO, a synthetic hormone that stimulates production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, and human growth hormone, which builds muscle and strength. A combined blood-urine test for EPO was introduced at the Sydney Olympics, but researchers are still trying to develop a foolproof stand-alone test. No test for growth hormone has yet been approved.
Experts believe EPO and growth hormone could be targets for gene-therapy misuse. "I am pretty sure that, just as the case with steroids and other therapies when they came along, there are groups looking for new ways to enhance performance," said Arne Ljungqvist, track's doping chief and head of
WADA's research panel. "We can't be naive. We must be realistic."
Johann Olav Koss, the former Norwegian speedskater who serves as an athletes' representative on the IOC and WADA, said there is no time to lose. "We should be very aggressive to prevent any form of genetic enhancement," he said. "We have to do this in the early stages before any athlete starts using this. We need to act quickly to define the rules. I don't
think sport has anything to benefit from having genetically enhanced athletes. This is not only an issue for sport, it's a broad ethical issue for human beings."