Genetically Modified Athletes

gm athlete

The 2008 Beijing Olympics is only a day away as of this writing. Athletes around the world are raring to give their countrymen honor and glory by winning their respective sports nice and clean. But there has never been a "clean" Olympics.

In fact, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) expects about 40 positive doping results at the Beijing Games, compared to 26 positive results at the 2004 Athens Olympics. There were 12 athletes caught doping at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney – former track queen Marion Jones was one of them.

Gene doping

Forget about steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. A new generation of "genetically modified" sportsmen and sportswomen could spoil the Summer Olympics and other sporting events as athletes go to new heights to realize their goals. Gene doping, which may be more difficult to detect than the more conventional kind, could turn out to be the greatest fair-play problem in sports history.

According to British scientist Andy Miah who is conducting a research on the incoming Games, "In 2004, people were starting to talk about its use at the Athens Olympics," adding that, "This year the case is even stronger that this will be the first genetically-modified Games. Many scientists will say it’s still not possible, but I’m not taking this for granted. We need to assume that it’s happening. It’s already feasible."


Treatments for illnesses and diseases now in various R&D phases can be modified to enhance future athletic performance. Researchers at the Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania have made some startling discoveries regarding muscle growth and repair mechanisms. The researchers found that a hormone known as IGF-1 facilitates the division of cells of the satellite cells that surround the muscle. The extra cells can mix with muscle fibers, which repair any damage in the outer layer and bulk up the inner layer. Thus, additional IGF-1 could be used to repair damaged muscle (due to disease or illness) or shrunk muscle (due to age).

The researchers injected the synthetic IGF-1 gene into middle-aged mice. A revealing result: the injected legs remained strong and healthy as the mice aged. On the other hand, the non-treated legs became 25% less strong. In spite of these positive results, researcher H. Lee Sweeney at the University of Pennsylvania warns: "Safety concerns as well as unresolved questions about whether it is better to deliver AAV (the synthetic virus carrying the Igf-1) in humans through the blood stream or by direct injection into muscle mean that approved gene therapy treatments using AAV-IGF-1 may be as much as a decade away."


Myostatin is a hormone that keeps our muscles manageable. It seems that if we remove Myostatin’s inhibition, our muscles should become bulkier. Consider this case: In 2004, doctors were puzzled by a boy who had a mutation that inactivated Myostatin. The 4.5-year-old boy had an impressive physique; he appears born for bodybuilding as he could hold out two 3-kilogram dumbbells with both arms extended. Researchers have been developing Myostatin-blocking medicines for muscle diseases such as muscular dystrophy.


Of course, many athletes desire not only muscle bulk but also endurance. Researchers at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California genetically engineered mice. They encoded PPAR-delta, a fat-burning protein, with hopes at creating slimmer mice. As expected, the mice were lean even when consuming foods rich in fats. The mice also developed many slow-twitch muscle fibers, enabling them to run double distance of their non-treated counterparts.

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