Scientist Suggests That Genetic Engineering Will Kill The Olympics

Posted: July 18, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Lintao Zhangy/Getty Images

That seems to be the question behind a new opinion piece in this week's journal Nature. As scientists uncover the genes that help people become world-class sprinters or record-breaking skiers, the idea that medals are won with just hard work, sweat and tears begins to feel outdated, according to the authors.

"When you start sequencing [the genes] of lots and lots of human beings, what we're going to find out is that we're more different than people had realized," said Steve Gullans, a managing director of Excel Venture Management in Boston, who co-wrote the piece with his colleague Juan Enriquez.

Already, Gullans said, DNA tests have shown that some Olympic athletes have distinct advantages. Finnish cross-country skier and seven-time Olympic medalist Eero Mntyranta, for example, carried a mutation in his EPOR gene that meant he produced up to 25 percent more red blood cells than the norm. That mutation gave Mntyranta an edge because his blood carried more oxygen than the blood of people without the mutation, Gullans told LiveScience. And that raises the question of whether "gene doping," or gene therapy to improve performance, should be banned.

"If someone else is carrying the EPOR receptor that I don't have, why shouldn't I be able to give it to myself to play on an equal playing field?" Gullans said. [7 Amazing Superhuman Feats]

The genome and the Olympics

Gene doping has been banned by the International Olympic Committee since 2003, though the actual therapies that could boost athletic performance remain largely theoretical. Nevertheless, gene therapy is becoming more common, raising new questions, Gullans said. Suppose scientists invented a gene-therapy procedure to cure sickle-cell anemia in babies, he said. Would a child who received the treatment forever be banned from the Olympics?

As the rules are written today, they likely would, Gullans said. The World Anti-Doping Agency rules prohibit "the transfer of nucleic acids or nucleic acid sequences" and "the use of normal or genetically modified cells" if those methods have "the potential to enhance sport performance."

This prohibition is much broader than the ban on drugs, which are split into performance-enhancing and allowed categories, Gullans said. It's likely that officials will have to grapple with a number of ethical gray areas as genetic manipulation advances.

Another example: Imagine that a genetic treatment could slow aging, so that people stayed healthy and youthful until after they were 100 years old, Gullans said. Would Olympic athletes be the only people forced to abstain?

Scientist Suggests That Genetic Engineering Will Kill The Olympics

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