Genetic therapy research has reached a critical phase. Already practised on humans as part of strictly controlled experiments, gene therapy promises to become a widely available form of treatment for injury and disease. However, advances in the science of gene therapy could also lead to abuse - in the form of genetic doping within sports, for example. Genetic modification to enhance athletic ability is a field investigated by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), who is organising the second WADA Symposium on Gene Doping in Stockholm in December.
"We have seen an interest among individuals who contact gene researchers for the purpose of doping in sport," said Karolinska Institutet’s Professor Arne Ljungqvist, Sweden’s most well-known anti-doping expert and chairman of WADA’s Health, Medical and Research Committee. "This is a disturbing trend not only because gene doping in sport is wrong, but also because it can be extremely dangerous."
The current status of research in the field of gene-doping detection will be presented at the international symposium to be held at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden from December 4-5, 2005.
"Gene doping represents a serious threat to the integrity of sport and the health of athletes," said WADA chairman Richard W. Pound. Anti-doping scientists are working vigorously alongside genetic scientists so that, as new therapeutic methods are being developed, anti-doping scientists are finding new ways to detect gene doping.
"Gene doping will in all likelihood soon be with us, and I would not be surprised if the first tentative steps had already been taken," said American professor Theodore Friedman, one of the world’s leading gene researchers, chairman of WADA’s Gene Doping Panel and the first speaker at the symposium.
Sportspeople are taking immense risks when they add new genetic material into their bodies. Already there have been at least two deaths during experiments conducted to treat the sick. "Two people have, for example, developed leukaemia," continued Professor Friedman. "The seriously ill can take such a risk perhaps, but for young, healthy sportsmen and women, it is completely unacceptable."
One challenge that anti-doping experts are trying to tackle is the fact that gene therapy methods, once available, will be relatively simple to use. All that may be needed is a standard laboratory according to WADA.