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WADA Gene Doping Symposium calls for greater awareness

World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Vice President Prof. Arne Ljungqvist of Sweden

World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Vice President Prof. Arne Ljungqvist of Sweden (Image credit: AFP)

The third Gene Doping Symposium organised by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in Saint Petersburg, Russia, from June 10-11, has come to an end. Participants concluded by calling for greater interactions among the sports community, professional scientific organisations, licensing agencies and clinical research oversight bodies to stimulate awareness of the potential illicit use of gene transfer techniques for athletic and other enhancement purposes, and to develop appropriate sanction mechanisms for illegal or unethical application of gene transfer in sport.

The meeting was the third such meeting sponsored by WADA following on those held in 2002 in New York, USA, and in 2005 in Stockholm, Sweden. The Saint Petersburg symposium gathered more than 60 participants from 16 countries and included experts in gene transfer, scientists from the field of anti-doping and representatives from sports and public authorities.

Participants discussed advances in gene transfer therapies and in the development of detection methods for the potential misuse of gene transfer in sport, boundaries between therapy and enhancement from both technical and ethical perspectives, as well as legal frameworks and law enforcement issues relating to gene doping.

"Most experts do not think that gene transfer is being misused by athletes yet, but we know that there is a growing level of interest in the sports world in the potential for gene doping, and that scientists working on potential genetic cures for muscle diseases or blood disorders are being approached by sports figures to inquire about the use of genes to enhance performance in sport," said WADA Vice President Prof. Arne Ljungqvist. "We need to make sure that athletes know the dangers associated with these technologies, and, for those who may choose to ignore them and cheat, that they will be caught."

One example of gene doping possibly already being carried out in pro cycling are hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) stabilizers. HIF activates the gene producing natural Erythropoietin (EPO) during hypoxic conditions – when the blood is low of oxygen. "Once the body has reached normal oxygen levels again, HIF is decomposed. But HIF stabilizers make the factor continue its job: stimulate the production of natural EPO even when there is no need for it anymore," explained Patrick Diel, gene doping expert at the Centre for Preventive Doping Research in Cologne, Germany, to

HIF stabilizers would be easier to use than artificial EPO injections, as they come as a pill. "With this pill, hematocrit increases – without the use of artificial EPO. As the EPO is produced naturally, it cannot be detected using the current tests," he continued, adding that a 'treatment' would be dangerous. "Clinical studies carried out last year had to be abandoned prematurely, as the patients showed unacceptable side-effects. Still, other pharmaceutical companies are working on similar concepts. Now that the drug has already been tested on humans, we don't know if it is already circulating in the sports world."

Still, Prof. Theodore Friedmann, Head of WADA Gene Doping Panel, remained optimistic about tracking down possible gene dopers. "While detection methods are early in their development, I have no doubt that the ongoing work will catalyse public discussion and awareness in this field," he said. "WADA will continue to be the leading agency in the application of modern molecular genetics and DNA technology to the development of improved methods for detection."

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