Gene doping or transfer is based on the principles of gene therapy. Here a healthy gene is transplanted into cells or directly into the genome to replace a mutated or absent gene. Currently, this process is still in the research and trial stage.
This process of gene doping, in the future, is likely to be used by athletes in an attempt to improve the function of normal healthy cells. One possible scenario is the use of genes which produce the hormone IGF-1, transported into the cells and causing the body to produce higher levels of IGF-1, important in the growth and development of musculoskeletal structures. This would be especially beneficial in injured athletes to speed the repair of muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc.
The detection of gene doping will be difficult, but WADA believes it will be possible. The detection process is likely to look for the consequences of gene doping in blood samples, rather than the gene transfer itself. For example, increased presence of certain enzymes and proteins. A second possibility is the use of MRI scans to detect areas of unusual gene expression.
Medical Uses of Gene Doping
This is currently being developed in an attempt to treat varying genetic conditions and diseases. For example, muscular dystrophy, which is caused by a genetic mutation or absence of one or more genes (dependant on the form of the disease) responsible for the structure and function of muscle cells. The aim of gene therapy will be to replace the mutated gene with a new, healthy gene, either into the patient’s cells or directly into the genome. Other conditions which could in the future be treated with gene therapy include cystic fibrosis, haemophilia, and type 1 (juvenile) diabetes
Effects on Performance
Effects on performance would be varied and could be substantial. Results would depend on the type of gene transferred, of which there are wide possibilities, meaning gene doping could be used by all types of athletes to improve their performance in a number of ways. Examples are to improve endurance, muscle strength and size, and faster recovery from injury and fatigue.
Side-Effects of Gene Doping
At this stage, it is impossible to state the exact side-effects that gene doping could present as the techniques used are as yet unrefined and results in trials have been unpredictable. Side-effects will depend on a number of factors, including the gene being transferred and the method of transfer.
Side-effects and errors in the transfer process could even be fatal as shown by previous trials in the transfer of genes which produce EPO in monkeys.