Last May, SI recounted the story of a mouse that was genetically altered by a team of researchers at Penn's Department of Physiology (SI, May 14, 2001). He-man, as we dubbed him, had been injected with a synthetic gene that instructed his body to produce more of a protein that makes muscles grow and also helps them repair themselves when they've been damaged. As a result, He-man's muscle mass was 60% greater than that of a normal mouse.
We're sorry to report that He-man died of old age in January. He was the human equivalent of 80 to 90. When H. Lee Sweeney, the head of the research team, did an autopsy he found that He-man had maintained almost all of his muscle mass, even though his daily workouts had been stopped six months earlier. "It would be like an NFL star keeping his physique and his ability to run, jump and lift until he died of old age," says Sweeney.
That result was one of many startling pieces of data presented this week at a groundbreaking symposium on the genetic enhancement of athletes. Organized by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the conference, held in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., brought together genetic researchers and sports leaders, including Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss. "WADA wanted to gain an understanding of the potential of this science and of what the problems are going to be," says Sweeney. "They ought to be scared of where this is going."
Sweeney predicts a human will be genetically manipulated, most likely to cure a muscular disease, within four years. After that it's a short step to athletes' secretly seeking the treatment, a prospect that has WADA chairman Dick Pound on alert. "We want to be ahead of the curve on this, rather than play catch-up as with doping," he says. "We have to do more than declare it unethical.
We're going to have to reach out to governments to tame this brave new world."
Theodore Friedmann, the director of a UC San Diego program that studies gene therapy and a speaker at the symposium, hopes meetings such as this one will result in a ban on the use of genetic engineering for anything but medical need. "Our aim needs to be not at the athletes but at the scientists who would give them access," says Friedmann. "We can't stop everybody, but maybe we can label this so outrageous that people won't try."
That's an unlikely scenario. "Every time one of these articles runs, my phone rings off the hook with athletes—mostly weightlifters—looking for an edge," says Sweeney. "The sports world has reason to be nervous."