Olympic officials and over 40 scientific experts from around the world will meet in Beijing on June 5- 6 to discuss recent findings and steps to advance the fight against gene manipulation by athletes in order to boost performance.
IOC medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist said researchers have made significant advances in devising a test for gene doping, leaving officials hopeful a method can be approved soon for use at the Olympics and other event.
“Quite some progress has been made in terms of outlining the scientific basis for analysis of gene doping,” Ljungvist told The Associated Press. “We are moving. It’s promising.”
Next month’s meeting is being organized by the World Anti- Doping Agency (WADA) in conjunction with China’s national anti- doping agency. It will be the fourth symposium on gene doping organised by the Olympic movement, following previous ones in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 2002; Stokholm in 2005; and St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2008.
“There have been scientific studies which are quite promising,” Ljungqvist who is also WADA vice president said. “We feel it’s time to review this within the context of small symposium of specialist.”
Gene doping involves transferring genes directly into human cells to blend into an athlete’s own DNA to enhance muscle growth and increase strength or endurance. It is an illegal offshoot of gene therapy, which typically alters a person’s DNA to fight diseases like muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. It is, hence, prohibited by the IOC and the WADA.
“We want to continue the momentum that we’ve got so we can get to a scenario where the detection method can be approved,” WADA director general David Howman told AP. “its close.”
The first major breakthrough in gene doping test happened in 2010, when two groups of scientists- one in Germany and a US- French research team- said they developed gene doping test. One was a blood test that that would detect doping as far back as 56 days, while the other was for detecting genetic doping muscles.
These test have not been validated and the hopes they could be employed in the London 2012 games where never realised.
“When you have a scientific method, that is one thing, but you need to develop a technique and make good use of it,” Ljungqvist said. “We have reasonably good scientific basis and we’ll have to discuss how to develop this further now.”
When asked about the availability of these tests, Ljungqvist said: “You can never predict when. Science is full of surprises and obstacles.”
According to WADA and IOC, there are no evidence of gene doping by athletes but warns that it’s only a matter of time. Scientists working on potential genetic cures for muscle diseases and blood disorders have been contacted by sports figures asking about enhancing performances.
“We know that those who wish to take a chance and cheat are ready to do anything,” Ljungqvist said. “We’ve had people who are researching into this and they have been approached by coaches and the like. But we don’t have any evidence suggesting this is yet in place.”
According to Howman, WADA has received reports on people looking on the black market for access to gene doping methods.
“Nothing has amounted that is sufficient to be able to put together a case,” Howman said. “We don’t discount the fact that people are fiddling with it. Certainly, that possibility exists.”
The prospect of genetic manipulation comes as drug cheats continue to turn to more traditional form of doping including:
• EPO and
• Blood transfusions.
Ljungqvist made reference to the Armstrong scandal in which the American cyclist acknowledged doping during his seven Tour de France victories saying, cheaters may not be as far ahead of the scientists as feared.
“The Armstrong case is very informative, that such an advanced doping cheat was using usual stuff.”
The wonder drugs are not there. It is still the same ones. That is interesting to us.”