Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gene Doping

It's going to be the next big thing in performance enhancement:

In his laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, Lee Sweeney was working to help cure debilitating diseases when he isolated a gene that boosts muscle growth. By pumping the gene into his subjects, he created mighty mice 50 percent stronger than normal . . .

. . . Then, Sweeney's phone rang. And rang. And rang. "I got lots of calls from athletes and coaches basically ready to go," said Sweeney, chairman of Penn's physiology department. "They said, 'I want to be injected. It sounds great.' They all picked up on the fact the approach was undetectable from a testing standpoint" . . . Sweeney explained to callers that a human body doesn't work like a mouse's and serious health risks were involved — a distinction that remains true four years later. "To that point I was naive about the way athletes feel about these things," Sweeney said. "I assumed they would say, 'Oh, I did not understand; I thought it was ready to go' and hang up. To the contrary. They said, 'Fine, use me as a guinea pig.'''
While tales of testicle shrinkage, breast growth, and ligament damage have failed to deter athletes from doing steroids, one would hope that the non-trivial risk of cancer that still accompanies the misuse of gene therapy would give them pause. If Sweeney's experience is typical, that's simply not the case.

But at the moment my biggest concern regarding this stuff isn't about the competitive landscape. Sure, there's an interesting conversation to have about the ethics of it all as it relates to sports, but as is the case with steroids, I'm content to let others have it. Rather, I'm concerned that most people's introduction to gene therapy and gene transfer -- the names for prescribed, therapeutic use for the same processes used in "gene doping" -- will be in the context of cheating at sports and general nefariousness as opposed to legitimate medicine and science.

As it stands, articles like this one -- not to mention whatever hysterical stuff the various anti-doping agencies produce -- focus on the need to develop a way to test athletes who may misuse gene therapies rather than perfect them or make them safer. The popular discourse to follow will no doubt be affected by this, and the same raised eyebrows friends of mine who have been prescribed steroids for medical conditions will accompany gene therapies as well.

Maybe I'm overreacting, but anything that could serve to stigmatize a legitimate procedure -- even if only a little bit -- could serve as a hindrance to the research, funding, and delivery of much-needed and potentially miraculous medical care. For that reason, I hope that the media treats whatever "gene doping" news which comes down the pike with a little perspective and a little restraint.


Ken Dynamo said...

so if it's safe for the athletes involved, why should we limit gene doping? i think haveing a league full of even awesomer athletes would make for awesomer events and thus more fun to watch. i am all for gene doping, and also hope steroids become safe and legal.

Craig Calcaterra said...

I think part of it is that, at present anyway, it's not safe. There have been reports of cancer and other nastiness with various gene therapy procedures.

But the point is a good one: if and when it is better understood and safe as milk, what will be the problem? We'll have moved from a world where decisions are made based on risk-reward, it seems, and into one where we're all arguing about metaphysics.

sean b said...

@ ken -

this type of thing would radically alter the way our sports look, to begin with. increasing muscle mass by even 20% would mean good luck finding a pitcher willing to stay 60'6" from home plate, unless we start making bats out of Nerf.

i don't favor legal steroid usage, but i have always wondered why. essentially, i feel that there is a line somewhere and a distinction i have yet to articulate about what is natural and what is alteration of the human body. this would be easier i imagine if i was a doctor or something like that.

i will say that i, for one, would lose interest in sports if we collectively gave up the fight against PEDs.

Mark Armour said...

I have the same inability to articulate the ethical line that we all have. Is laser eye surgery OK? What if it could give anyone 10 times normal vision?

I am against gene doping, but I can't explain why.

Marcel said...

I can tell you exactly why I'm against it. Because I have a huge ego. I believe that I can beat you solely based on my natural ability. And it pisses me off that other people can't take the same pride in their own natural talents. If someone else that is legitamitely better than I am beats me, then so be it. But if you need to cheat to be able to beat me, then fuck you.