The Future (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday March 11, 2008 12:27PM; Updated: Wednesday March 12, 2008 10:52AM
Apparently it ran in the family. The boy's mother, who was 24 when she gave birth to the "superbaby," had a mutation on one of her two myostatin genes, presumably leaving her less of the protein than normal but not so little that she was as muscle-bound as her son. Nevertheless, she is a testament to the tantalizing temptation of gene-doping. Superbaby's mother, the only adult in the world with a documented myostatin mutation, was a professional sprinter.
The world anti-doping agency has banned gene tampering in athletes and spent millions attempting to develop tests to identify it. Such a procedure will require technology unlike any employed by antidoping scientists. The theory, according to Ted Friedmann, the scientist leading WADA's search for gene-doping countermeasures, is to fight genes with genes. If one medical breakthrough is revolutionizing doping, perhaps another can beat it back.
Thanks to the Human Genome Project, someday all of us could carry our entire genetic blueprint on a microchip, which we'd present to doctors during medical treatment. As that technology matures, Friedmann hopes athletes' genomes can be screened, and that gene-doping markers or signatures will emerge.
As pharmaceutical companies race to turn genetic research into medicine, new gene-therapy drugs could come to market en masse over the coming years. In practical terms it will be impossible to develop specific tests for each of them. "We can keep buying instruments and keep building labs," says pharmacologist Don Catlin, founder of the UCLA Olympic Laboratory, "but [the antidoping] industry isn't like Exxon. There are certain limits."
Perhaps a time will come when there is no longer a need to define those limits -- not because of new artillery in the war on doping but because gene therapy will have become so widespread that it will be as controversial as Flintstone chewables. So far Sweeney has aided antidoping officials. "But I've often told WADA my position would change if [gene therapy] is proven to be safe," he says. "Then we're withholding something that would make the athletes healthier."
That would, in turn, raise a new series of questions: What is it we seek to gain from sport? Do we want to see larger-than-life behemoths swatting 600-foot home runs? Or do we prefer to see people more like us pressing the limits of their strength and skill? After all, with their legions of doctors and coaches and cutting-edge equipment, professional athletes, doped or not, are hardly us.
The gravest danger in the debate over gene transfer is not that athletes might taint sport by tampering with their genes. It's that by abusing such treatment, they'll create the same stigma for gene therapy that they have for steroids.
Pat Furlong has felt the effects of that stigma. She is the head of Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy. Her two sons began life happy and healthy, "and then over 10 to 15 years, you watch them go away, helpless," she says. Part of her job is to persuade parents of kids with muscular dystrophy and their doctors that anabolic steroids are beneficial. "I get calls from parents nervous about steroids because of what they've heard," she says. "But the flip side is that steroids have benefits in people who are losing function. In Duchenne muscular dystrophy, it's all we have.
"We know there's no drug that will come without side effects, but steroids are an option to preserve and protect muscle for a few minutes longer, or a few months longer, or a few more years." The local newscasts, and Congress, rarely mention the part about how they can help kids with MD walk longer, which keeps their spines straighter and helps them breathe better.
As he stands at the edge, looking over the gene-doping precipice, Se-Jin Lee has similar concerns. The hysteria that will ensue when an athlete is caught gene-doping, Lee frets, will result in restrictions on gene-therapy drugs, making them hard to obtain by those who truly need them.
"If [an athlete] did cheat, it was his choice," Lee says. "If [the league] turned its back and allowed that to happen, it was their choice. Patients with debilitating diseases did not get there by choice."
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