Genetically modified athletes


At Rio 2016 a test will be used for the first time to find out if the athletes in the race have tried to manipulate their genetic heritage, to strengthen their muscles and increase their resistance: what we begin to know as genetic doping .

It is actually a type of illegal sporting behavior that has been talked about for years, and that already in 2003 the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) included in the list of prohibited practices. However, there is no evidence that there are athletes who have really used it, also because they are very complex (as well as risky) techniques.

Suspects. "This test is the first of its kind and is being used for the first time, " Carl Johan Sundberg, a researcher in sports physiology at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and a member of the WADA study group on genetic doping, told met at the EuroScience Open Forum which was held in Manchester in recent days.

Image Computerized processing: the model shows the secondary structure of an EPO (erythropoietin hormone). The hormone regulates the level of oxygen in the body thanks to a mechanism that allows blood to carry more oxygen (energy): by virtue of this role it is often at the center of doping issues. | Science Photo Library / Contrasto

In practice, the authorities are trying to run for cover in advance, adopting a test for an almost science-fiction type of doping and of which so far there is only suspicion.

The authority has not stated in which disciplines the athletes will be tested, nor how many athletes. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has instead specified that the samples collected in Rio will be tested after the games, not during.

It is also known that the officially approved test concerns the possibility of tracing the presence of the artificial version of EPO genes, the erythropoietin hormone produced naturally by the kidneys, which regulates the production of red blood cells in the blood, at the center of so many scandals in sports doping since the 1990s.

What does it consist of? In simple words, genetic doping is a side result of gene therapy research (see Gene therapy, what it is and where we are) to treat serious diseases: research that often produces a lot of knowledge but little results. In this case the insertion of healthy DNA would be done not to correct the effects of a mutation but to improve physical performance.

Image Study of the anatomy of a sprinter: to give energy to the muscles, the heart can reach 160-220 beats per minute. | Science Photo Library / Contrasto

The interest in a possible use in sport has been triggered since the publication of the first works on research in gene therapy. In principle, any gene associated with super performance could be a candidate for genetic doping. In practice, attention has focused on those associated with specific functions on which researchers have already worked with animal experiments.

One is the IGF-1 gene, which has been shown to promote growth in mouse muscles; another one for EPO, which researchers are trying to develop in the form of gene therapy for those suffering from severe anemia, for example after chemotherapy.

For athletes, inserting the modified gene into their body via a viral vector, or with intramuscular injections, would be a way to make the body "naturally" produce greater amounts of erythropoietin, without resorting to the synthetic version of the hormone, which the anti tests - current doping, introduced in 2000, are able to detect.

Australian test. The new test was developed in Australia in the WADA accredited laboratory by Anna Baoutina, a researcher at the National Measurement Institute in Sidney. From the few details available, it seems that he is able both to check the presence of viruses that are more commonly used as vectors for gene therapy (ie to introduce the desired DNA segment into the body), and to analyze the sequence of genes that code for the Epo to discover anomalies that would signal the introduction of a "foreign" DNA segment.

Image Study of the anatomy of basketball players. | Science Photo Library / Contrasto

This would in particular be the case that while the genes that code for Epo proteins are normally interspersed with DNA sequences called introns, in the artificial sequence the genes are usually placed side by side without intervals.

Willing to do anything. Certainly, researchers working in the field of gene therapy research are no longer surprised, as it was years ago, to be contacted by coaches - or by the athletes themselves - for information or to apply to try out the techniques designed for themselves. cure muscle diseases or act on the metabolism, apparently oblivious to the enormous scientific uncertainties. "Because there are athletes willing to take any risk to win a medal, " says Sundberg.

Doping: substances, illicit benefits, side effects

Beyond belief. And besides, the world of sports doping itself is full of incredible stories, like the scandal of the alleged state doping program for Russian athletes . Among the most disturbing episodes there would be those that involved the Russian national athletes at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, in 2014.

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"Urine samples were exchanged at night through a hole in the wall, " Arne Ljungqvist, the 85-year-old former Olympic athlete and former president of the IOC medical commission, one of the leading figures in anti-human research, told ESOF at a press conference. doping in the world. As the New York Times told in detail thanks to the testimony of the ex-director of the Russian anti-doping agency, Grigory Rodchenkov, who fled to the United States, Russian experts had found the system to open the sealed test tubes containing the urine of their athletes and replace it with the "clean" one collected months before the races.

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