Skip to comments.Apocalypse now: fears of gene doping are realised
Posted on 02/03/2006 5:53:33 PM PST by truthandlife
A new substance has emerged that suggests the next stage in the drugs battle has started
THE grim new world of gene doping, for so long viewed as the apocalyptic future of illegal performance-enhancement in sport, has dawned in Germany. Experts had been concerned that advances in gene therapy would start to impact on sport by the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. However, evidence from a court case in Magdeburg, Germany, suggests that a new brand of cheats could be injecting in time for the Turin Winter Games, which start next week.
Gene doping is the big fear among those fighting for clean sport. It involves manipulation of the human genetic code and thus evades standard detection methods. And a German court has identified the distribution among coaches of a substance called Repoxygen, which works in this way to produce erythropoietin (EPO) indigenously.
You would have to be blind not to see that the next generation of doping will be genetic, Dick Pound, the chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told scientists only two months ago. It seems that this next generation has arrived.
Evidence of gene doping has been stumbled upon at the trial of Thomas Springstein, the coach and partner of Grit Breuer, twice the European 400 metres champion, who was banned for taking the stimulant Clenbuterol. Springstein is accused of supplying steroids to female athletes that he has been coaching in Germany; the body of evidence against him was fortified by a police raid on the home he shares with Breuer, during which 20 chemical substances were said to have been found, 12 of which are yet to be identified.
Also removed from their house was Springsteins laptop. At the start of his trial, Springsteins lawyer failed in his plea to keep private the contents of his e-mail inbox. Certain e-mails were read out in court and it was in one exchange with the doctor of a Dutch speed-skating club that the incriminating evidence was allegedly discovered. Among a large number of doping products discussed, the prosecution claims, was the use of the aforementioned ground-breaker, Repoxygen.
The e-mails were passed on to Professor Werner Franke, a German cell biologist largely responsible for exposing those behind the drugs regimes of the former East German sports system. Franke told The Times that he was devastated by what he read. We have been expecting gene doping, but not so soon, he said. I dont know how they have it, but they do. This is the crossing of the Rubicon. This is a real advance in criminality.
His reaction was matched by Michele Verroken, the director of the consultancy Sporting Integrity and former head of anti-doping at UK Sport. When I first read about it, I thought, Wow, someones cracked it, she said. This is a really significant development.
Repoxygen was pioneered in 2002 by Oxford Biomedica, an Oxford-based pharmaceutical company. It is a hugely significant breakthrough for the healthcare market for which it had been intended, primarily to treat serious anaemia.
The human body already produces EPO indigenously. EPO, in turn, is the agent that produces the red blood cells that carry oxygen to the muscles. When an athletes body is tiring, it is because it craves oxygen. This is why athletes can enhance performance by injecting synthetic EPO, the illegal part of the process. The brilliance of Repoxygen is that it gives the body the gene with which it can stimulate further EPO production on its own.
In announcing its breakthrough product on June 6, 2002, Oxford Biomedica explained that use of Repoxyen allows the body to switch a gene on in response to a low oxygen level and then, when that level has been raised, to switch the gene off, providing an exquisite control mechanism for the production of EPO in situ.
Within three months, the anti-doping movement had registered its concern over misuse. We see Repoxygen as a significant threat, Larry Bowers, the managing director of the US Anti-Doping Agency, said after a meeting in Atlanta in October 2002. You can turn it on and off. It acts more or less like the body.
While Bowers et al attempt to pioneer a test for gene doping, the immediate question is how Repoxygen got on to the black market. While Oxford Biomedica made the Repoxygen prototype, it never went into production because the company believed that it could not compete in the pharmaceutical market where EPO was already so readily available.
We didnt develop it any further, Professor Alan Kingsman, Oxford Biomedicas chief executive, said. So it simply remains in the fridge. And we maintain very close controls, so Id be extremely surprised if anything we made got on to the black market.
One conclusion is that other laboratories had reproduced Repoxygen from information gleaned from Oxford Biomedicas launch. It would take a fairly advanced lab to make it, Kingsman said. But it would be very irresponsible for a number of reasons. For a start, we only went as far as testing it on mice. To use it in the human body would be playing with fire.
RAISING THE BAR IN THE CHEATING STAKES
Michelle Verroken, Former head of UK dope testing
"This is a really signigicant development. When I read about this substance, I thought: Wow"
Dick Pound, World Anti-Doping Agency chairman
"You would have to be bline not to see that the next generation of doping will be genetic"
Dr Werner Franke, Leading German anti-doper
"This is the crossing of the Rubicon, a real advance in criminality"
So what's wrong with increasing physical abilities if there are no negative effects? It seems that anything that makes healthy people healthier is somehow "an advance in criminality".