- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

By the time Major League Baseball gets around to testing for anabolic steroids, the league may be relatively free of Deca-Durabolin, Testoprim-D and other tongue-twisting, testosterone-boosting concoctions.

Of course, that doesn't mean the players will be any less juiced.

While baseball grapples with recent reports of widespread steroid use, a new era of sports doping is fast approaching one in which genetic engineering helps athletes run faster, jump higher and crush more home runs than ever before.

Fair or otherwise.

"With the potential of genetic therapy, all types of current drug use could become obsolete," said Dr. Charles Yesalis, an epidemiologist at Penn State University and an expert on performance-enhancing drugs. "Literally, it's only limited by your imagination and knowledge of the human body.

"Pick any attribute of an athlete, physical or even behavioral. Do you want a bigger muscle? Do you want to produce more growth hormone naturally? You could have better vision, better reaction time, the list goes on and on."

The revolution is already under way. The Human Genome Project a comprehensive map of the body's genetic code promises to transform medical science once completed. Researchers are developing genetic therapies to treat broken bones, muscle tears and ligament damage.

Performance-enhancing sports applications aren't far behind. At the Winter Olympics, two cross country skiers were stripped of their gold medals after testing positive for darbepoetin, a hormone that boosts production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

A banned hormone with similar effects, erythropoietin (EPO), has been used by endurance athletes in other sports, including several cyclists who were kicked out of the 1998 Tour de France.

While both hormones are currently available in synthetic form as drugs, like anabolic steroids athletes soon may be able to increase their levels of EPO without ingesting or injecting the laboratory-made version.

The trick? Inserting enhanced EPO-producing genes directly into the body in effect, adding an extra production line to an athlete's natural hormone factory.

In an effort to treat anemia, scientists already have introduced a modified EPO gene into mice, monkeys and baboons; reportedly, clinical trials in humans could begin within a year.

"You put the gene into a virus carrier, and then use that virus to infect, say, mice," said Dr. Theodore Friedmann, chief of the Division of Molecular Genetics at the University of California, San Diego. "Wherever you injected the virus, at that site you get a production of EPO, which then gets into the blood circulation. When that gets to the bone marrow, it turns on [red blood cell] production."

And EPO is just the beginning. Four years ago, researchers in London discovered a gene that helps regulate the body's electrolyte levels and blood vessel size, key factors in athletic endurance. They promptly dubbed it the "jock gene."

In a highly publicized 1999 experiment, University of Pennsylvania scientists injected a mouse with an artificial gene that increased the production of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a protein that fosters muscle growth and repair.

Dubbed "He-Man," the mouse quickly lived up to his moniker, putting on 60 percent more muscle mass than an average mouse. In one test, he carried three times his body weight.

Two years later, He-Man's strength remained intact, and his body continued to crank out high levels of IGF-1 even though levels of the protein normally decline with advancing age.

In a similar experiment, London researchers reportedly were able to increase mouse muscle mass by 60 percent in a month's time, without the aid of exercise.

"And there are other genes like that, growth factor genes that are potentially useful," Friedmann said.

The ramifications for sports are obvious: Enhance the gene, enhance the performance. Not to mention the potential.

Imagine an IGF-1-boosted Richard Hamilton, suddenly built like Ben Wallace. Or a genetically-altered Barry Bonds, still hitting bombs at age 50.

Imagine an NBA where Shaquille O'Neal's hulking presence is the norm, not the exception.

"A famous geneticist once said, 'If you want to be a champion, choose your parents well,'" said Dr. Robert Ruhling, director of the Human Performance Research Laboratory at George Mason University. "Now, we're trying to do that in a test tube."

The sports world is beginning to take notice. IOC president Jacques Rogge has spoken out against gene doping. Olympic medalist Johan Olav Koss, a former world speed skating champion and a board member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, fears that elite athletes already may be dabbling in genetic manipulation.

Earlier this year, an international panel of genetic experts met at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York to discuss the issue. Their conclusion?

Given the breakneck pace of genetic research, gene doping is just a matter of time.

"What's caught my attention is that in 1995, experts were saying, well, maybe by the year 2010 we'll see it," said Yesalis, coeditor of the book Performance Enhancing Substances in Sport and Exercise.

"Now, the estimates have dropped from 2010, to 2008, to reputable scientists saying that you could see some athletes at [the 2004] Athens [Games] that have attempted genetic therapy."

Should that come to pass, anti-doping officials may be powerless to prevent it. Current performance enhancing drugs are extremely difficult to detect; for instance, a new test that distinguishes between natural and synthetic testosterone is so expensive and time consuming that it only can be used after an athlete has flunked a less sophisticated screening test.

Genetic tinkering presents an entirely new set of challenges. A Swedish scientist told London's Guardian newspaper that the only way to uncover genetic cheats may be though muscle biopsy in other words, slicing out a chunk of flesh from the exact spot on the body where an altered gene was injected.

Needless to say, that probably won't be practical. Let alone popular.

"If you use the past to predict the future, [drug testers] haven't won anything at all," Yesalis said. "So why would anyone think that when we get into the genetic aspect it will be any different?"

While the threat of testing may not slow gene doping, the possible side effects might. In 1999, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania inserted a virus carrying altered genes into the liver of an 18-year-old male in order to treat a rare metabolic disease.

Four days later, the teen-ager died.

"Guess what people are going to die," Ruhling said. "Look back at [former NFL player] Lyle Alzado. The American way is if one is good for me, I'll take two. Everything is to the extreme. Will these athletes know what they're putting in their bodies? Will they understand the effects?"

Gene doping also presents what is known as a "control" problem in effect, the inability to turn an altered gene off or on when necessary.

For example, an EPO-boosting gene might raise the body's levels of the hormone indefinitely. The ultimate result? Fatal blood thickening.

"Even if you're trying to cure diseases like cancer, there are major problems and safety issues in the use of genetic tools," Friedmann said. "But generally, it's thought that the risk is worth it if you're dealing with a nasty disease.

"If you're dealing with something like how fast you run, however, then the question really becomes: Are the risks worth taking?"

Judging from the current situation in baseball, Yesalis said, the answer is self-evident.

"One can argue that doping substantially helps the business of sport," he said. "It sure as heck helped baseball. What fans want to see are bigger-than-life athletes doing bigger-than-life things. That's what sells. And to get bigger than life, you gotta have drugs."

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