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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Is Gene Doping the Ultimate Sport Ethics Question?

The steroid and other drug scandals that are so prevalent today would pale in comparison to what could happen if genetic engineering is ever allowed to escape the very strictest of regulation and control. This new technology could lead to the ultimate sporting nightmare as athletes and unethical scientists scramble to cash in on the latest advances in what can be conceivably good for mankind.

When the first report was published which demonstrated that gene therapy could enhance mouse muscle, there was a deluge of inquiries from professional power lifters, sprinters, and other athletes as to how they could use this new scientific discovery. (Brownlee, 2004) One of the first questions that comes to mind is, “Can gene doping actually be used to enhance performance?” The answer to that question is most likely in the affirmative, with the more important question being as to “when?”

The mapping of the human genome is a recent phenomenon, and with it came the knowledge that reveals how genes are responsible for a whole host of physical properties. If “HGH” (human growth hormone) is increased, the athlete can become stronger. If the body is signaled to create EPO (erythropoietin), more red blood cells could be produced with concomitant increases in endurance. The techniques are remarkably simple- just inject the DNA responsible for releasing the hormones into the athletes before they compete. Since nothing is placed into the blood or urine directly, detection will become all but impossible, short of muscle biopsies.

Since the use of performance- enhancing agents such as steroids continues, despite numerous scandals, it seems likely that there will be a rush to try out these latest scientific advancements as well. The lure of multi- million dollar contracts and world fame may prove to be overwhelming.

All sorts of ethical issues are bound to arise as this new technology progresses. By their very nature, the issues will be much more technical than traditional doping, and the approaches used, will of necessity, be different as well.

The original idea was to provide an essential substance that was lacking which could provide a missing or even damaged gene. This objective has been modified to also include actually fortifying muscle, bone, and other tissue as soon as symptomology appears. For example, these techniques could theoretically be used to slow down, or even prevent, the wasting away of muscle from such a disease as muscular dystrophy.

The problem could be that the very things that could be used to treat a disease could also be used to make an apparently healthy person even stronger. What would be the consequences if humans suddenly became the equivalent of “marathon mice?” Scientists at the Salk Institute produced just such mice by inserting genes that code for a fat- burning protein called PPAR- delta with the result being that they exercised without apparent fatigue. (Barton-Davis, 1998) In short, these scientific advancements could be used to change a person’s natural abilities! How would “success” then be defined?

Certainly the potential exists for some very perplexing and extremely important ethical questions to arise that need immediate attention. Very little is known with regard to the possible long- term consequence of gene doping and repeat procedures are probable as one- time fixes are not as likely to last with athletes who train vigorously. The probability of inequalities and inaccessibility is certainly extremely high as well.

It is a time to be proactive and not reactive. Gene doping must be stopped before it ever has a chance of beginning! Perhaps the best hope is that the technology will never develop to the point that it could be utilized by athletes to enhance performance?


Barton- Davis, E. R. and Sweeney, H. L. “Viral Mediated Expression of Insulin- like Growth Factor I Blocks the Aging- Related Loss of Skeletal Muscle Function.”PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES. 1998, December, 15603.

Brownlee, Christen. “Gene Doping- Will Athletes go for the Ultimate High?” SCIENCE NEWS ONLINE, 2004, 166, no.18, p.280.