The Loneliness of the Gene-Enhanced Runner

Will "gene-doping" ruin sports?


I am not a sports fan. I barely know that baseball is the game that's played with a stick. (Or do they call it a "bat?" Never mind.) I was the tallest kid in my high school, but when the basketball coaches asked me to come out for the team, I turned them down. I was too busy with the debate team. So I have no dog in the coming fight over "gene-doping" in sports (or the fight over steroids for that matter either, but that's a slightly different topic).

What is "gene-doping" anyway? The controversy began when Lee Sweeney, chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of Pennsylvania, announced back in 1998 that he could insert the gene for insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) into the muscles of mice and thus prevent the muscle wasting that occurs as a result of both aging and the genetic disease muscular dystrophy.

Sweeney is conducting this research with the goal of both treating muscular dystrophy and halting the muscle loss that typically comes with aging, which is a leading cause of fatal falls among the elderly. In fact, Sweeney's old mice experienced a 19 percent increase in muscle mass. Even better, the older mice experienced a 27 percent boost in muscle strength, and both muscle mass and function were restored to their youthful levels.

It was immediately obvious that such gene-transfer therapies might also be used to enhance the musculatures of normal adults. Consequently, these very preliminary therapeutic successes in animals instantly provoked a lot of gnashing of teeth over the possibility that athletes might begin to engage in "gene-doping." In other words, athletes would seek out physicians to inject IGF-1 genes into their muscles in order to boost their size and power. "We're trying to work with muscular dystrophy," noted Sweeney in the San Diego Union-Tribune. "But we're drawing a road map for how the athlete of the future could obtain tremendous performance enhancement. We need to be aware of what's possible so people can start to look for it."

However, before rushing out to inject performance-enhancing genes, athletes would be well advised to heed the results of an experiment in which the EPO gene–which promotes the production of red blood cells–was injected into the legs of eight rhesus monkeys. It is well known that boosting red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the muscles, improves an athlete's stamina. Infamously, East German Olympic athletes used to have red blood cells injected into them just before competition. In the EPO gene experiment, half of the monkeys overproduced red blood cells. This would have turned their blood to sludge, causing them to die of strokes, had they not had their blood thinned every two weeks. The other half of the monkeys mysteriously suffered from a fatal anemia in which the production of red blood cells was completely shut down. Nevertheless, with that warning firmly in mind, few doubt that such enhancements will one day work.

But would "gene-doping" be cheating?

"I want to be sure when I cheer that I'm cheering for the [athlete] and not his or her chemist," sniffed Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics and implacable foe of all biotechnological frivolity, earlier this year in the Los Angeles Times.

The plain fact of the matter is that athletes are already more genetically gifted than most of us–some even more so than others. For example, Finnish cross-country skier Eero Maentyranta won two gold medals at the 1964 Winter Olympics. Certainly he trained hard, but Maentyranta had an advantage: He was born with a variant of the EPO gene that caused him to produce 25 to 50 percent more red blood cells than the average person has.

Earlier this year, a five-year-old German boy with unusually large and strong muscles was found to have a mutation that deactivated a gene that would normally slow his growth. His mother, a competitive sprinter, was found to have one copy of the mutated gene herself. Should he and his mother be forbidden to compete, although they come by their advantages "naturally"? Interestingly, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals is testing a drug that mimics the effects of the boy's deactivated gene as a possible treatment for muscle wasting diseases.

In August 2004, researcher Ronald Evans reported that his team at the Salk Institute had been able to genetically engineer mice to produce Type I muscle fibers that turns them into endurance runners, so-called Marathon Mice. The Marathon mice were able to run 92 percent longer and twice as far as normal mice. His experiment highlighted the known fact that gene variants in human athletes account for the balance between Type I (endurance) muscle fibers and Type II (fast twitch, sprinter) muscle fibers. In fact, in November 2004, an Australian company began offering its $100 Sports Gene Test to help athletes decide in which sports they should specialize based on whether their genes code for more endurance or fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Of course, each sporting authority may decide for itself what rules it will impose on participants. If they choose to limit access to safe new enhancement biotechnologies, that's perfectly fine with me. However, it is not at all clear that such restrictions are intrinsically more moral or authentic than allowing the use of the new technologies.

Perhaps gene-doping can be thought of as leveling the playing field, allowing even those who are naturally less genetically gifted to compete. A playing field on which everyone has optimized their physical abilities would become an arena in which true grit, determination, and character come to the fore.

Besides, wouldn't it be cool if the old geezers in the stands were more muscular than the players on the field?