27 Jul 2018

EPO gene doping and designer super-baby athletes - Diana Bowman

From Nine To Noon, 9:43 am on 27 July 2018

The performance of elite sportspeople has steadily increased over the decades,  but in the future could embryonic gene editing technology create designer athletes?

It may sound a little far fetched, but the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is also looking at ways to enable the detection of gene doping.

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Photo: 123rf

It has recently taken the step of banning genetics-based performance enhancement.

Professor Diana Bowman, from Arizona State University's School for the Future of Innovation in Society - is working on a research project examining the potential impacts of human gene editing on global sport.

She says the basic technology already exists, which could ultimately result in the engineering of a super athlete of the future. 

Boosting hormone production

“We already believe that there is gene doping going on, and that’s focused on EPO applications,” she told Nine to Noon’s Kathryn Ryan. 

“EPO is a naturally formed hormone in our body, our kidneys produce it ... traditionally abused by athletes who need to improve their oxygen-carrying capacity, so, long distance runners, cyclists. 

“What they’ve traditionally done is either taken out their own EPO over a period of time and re-injected it into their body, or artificially created EPO. 

“What we believe may be happening now is people are actually using gene editing to increase the production of EPO in their body 

She says this makes detection very difficult. 

“We do actually have  a test in place already to detect gene doping with EPO but we haven’t got a positive result. 

“Because it is naturally produced by their body, it is more difficult to detect.  The only way to test for it in terms of is this gene doping is to actually have a baseline of the athlete’s DNA. 

“You can actually compare that baseline pre-gene doping and a level of EPO in the system compared to when you think they’re actually doing gene doping.” 

The human DNA model takes on a double helix shape

Gene doping seems like a realistic proposition in the next five to ten years, and is possibly already taking place, Prof Bowman says.  Photo: (Pixabay)

She says that brings huge social, ethical and legal issues into play, however. 

“Privacy is obviously a key one in terms of having these DNA passports of every athlete, and what other uses could happen to that DNA over time if not correctly stored. 

“There’s also huge questions about would that push athletes to do gene doping earlier and earlier, so that if and when a [baseline] gene sample is taken they’ve already started doping."

She says while WADA has banned the use of gene editing at the highest levels, there’s also concern for second-tier athletes where testing and expertise may not be as rigorous.

“My concern is not necessarily even the most elite athletes who are covered by the WADA ban, but the athlete on the next level of athlete down who we already know engages in a lot of doping activities and pushes themselves in order to be successful.” 

State-sanctioned embryo editing

Prof Bowman is also looking at a potential technique which would be a little further into the future. 

“Embryonic gene editing technologies is still a long way away and it’s very hypothetical,” she says. 

“But given what we know in terms of what parents and states are willing to do, we can imagine that scientists may be pushed into actually focusing their efforts into producing a design of baby with athletic traits. 

82735146 - adorable toddler in retro style sport suit going to lift a kettlebell

Photo: olgalistopad/123RF

She says the historical precedent of parents and states pushing for athletic children is there. 

“We’ve seen numerous examples over the years in tennis and golf where parents have actually pushed the child into sports regardless of whether the child is really interested or not. 

“We’ve seen state sanctioned programmes or at least state intervention in terms of bringing two adults together for the purposes of having a child who has very specific traits.” 

She says that kind of gene editing is likely still years away, however.