Thursday, January 22, 2004

When it was released in October, Beyond Therapy, a report from the President’s Council on Bioethics, prophesied that professional athletes would have a difficult time not using genetic agents for enhancing muscle mass once they had been discovered and developed. The report perspicaciously called attention to insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a protein that promotes the growth and repair of muscles. It was developed as a therapy for those with muscle-wasting diseases, such as individuals weakened by either muscular dystrophy or the process of aging. IGF-1 has shown a dramatic ability to build muscle mass in lab mice. Yet, even though IGF-1 has not been tested for safety, healthy individuals — namely athletes — have already expressed interest in using the compound.

Professional athletes may already be using it, according to “In Pursuit of Doped Excellence,” the cover story of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine by Michael Sokolove. The scientists he talked to suggested that dosing athletes with IGF-1 would be easy to do and almost undetectable. Amateur athletes also can dose themselves with IGF-1, since it can be easily procured on the Internet. Hucksters proclaim that IGF-1 will produce all sorts of remarkable effects, ranging from building muscle to repairing nerves.

The abuse of such substances raises substantial safety issues, but even more significant ethical ones. After all, should the FDA deem IGF-1 to be dangerous, it could ban it, just as it did Ephedra. While sanctions would not stop all individuals willing to pay any price for high athletic performance, the worst abuses might be limited.

Yet, as Beyond Therapy noted, doping not only corrupts the excellence of the achievement, but it also distorts powers not innate to the athlete. This, the council said, “deforms … the character of human desire and aspiration.”

Athletes are already close to that point. Mr. Sokolove pointed out that “elite athletes in many different sports routinely consume cocktails of vitamins, extracts and supplements … The cheaters and noncheaters alike are science projects.” Professor John Hoberman told Mr. Sokolove, “The current doping agony is a kind of very confused referendum on the future of human enhancement.”

Considering its potential ramifications, the issue needs far greater clarity and far more open debate. After all, the use — and abuse — of IGF-1 is a likely prelude to the dangers and dilemmas of other artificial genetic muscle enhancers. Their availability seems certain, their desirability seems assured and their dehumanization seems likely. The president’s council argued that it would be easy to turn “our would-be heroes into slaves, persons who exist only to entertain us.”

There is no sure way to avoid such dangers, although the old proverb, “Forewarned is forearmed” seems especially relevant. To better arm the public against such perils, the president’s council recently made an anthology of literature on the dilemmas of bioethics freely available to the public ( The site should be visited by those interested in forearming themselves.

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