The Explanation of the Science Behind Gene Doping

Modern research in genetics and genomics is being used widely in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, but recent study findings reveal that it is also being used in an attempt to enhance human performance. The legally accepted means of using this gene modification technology to treat patients is referred to as gene therapy. However, the trend of trying to abuse the gene transfer technology in the field of sports is known as gene doping (Schneider & Friedmann, 2006). As the world witnesses continued advancements in biotechnology, there is increasing concern about the possibility of resorting to genetic enhancement of human athletes as participants and their coaches strive to shatter world records. Although genetic doping is still on the horizon, recent publications from various research rodents in the laboratories show improved muscle performance as a result of genetic manipulation (Wells, 2008). Since the difference between gene therapy and gene doping is almost unclear, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) defines gene doping as the non-therapeutic manipulation of genes as well as genetic elements with the likelihood of enhancing the performance of an ordinary athlete (Schneider & Friedmann, 2006). The geneticists of the 21st century are forewarning that genetic doping is a looming crisis in the world of sports and may become a reality soon. This essay seeks to explain the science behind gene doping in sports and enhanced performance.

As mentioned above, gene doping is a widely known term for using scientific knowledge on genetics to enhance the performance of athletes. There are about four major ways through which genetics can be used to influence athletes’ performance. First, there is genomics which involves the fine-tuning of drugs used by athletes with considerations of individual genetic profiling. Somatic cell modification is the second and most common way where the blood cells are altered to increase the athlete’s endurance period. The third and the one believed to have the highest probability of being passed on to offspring is germline modification. It involves the modification of the genetic structure of embryos, male sperm or female ova. Genetic selection is another method through which athletes can be influenced genetically. The athletes are chosen according to their genetic profiling (Schneider & Friedmann, 2006). However, genetic doping is still a complex issue to be tied to the common use of drugs. Genetic technology is still developing and it is anticipated that further research can bring it to reality sooner than later. There already exist several anti-doping measures in the field of sports. Strict policies and tests have helped reduce instances of doping by athletes. The challenge, however, is to understand the scientific explanation of gene doping before it becomes an issue.

Genetic doping is similar to gene therapy in that it is based on the deliberate introduction and subsequent expression of a target gene into a host. The modulation of the expression of endogenous genes can also be used. There are two methods through which the target gene can be introduced into the body of an athlete. One of them is in vivo gene doping where the target gene is introduced directly into the athlete’s body by use of biological vectors, also known as viral vectors, or by chemical means like the use of liposomes. Ex Vitro method is the second and it involves the use of physical methods like the use of syringe or gene gun for direct injection (Hassan, Mai, & Christenson, 2009).

The scientific discovery of gene doping has its origin in the ability to reverse muscle degeneration resulting from disease infection, for instance, the Duchene muscular dystrophy (DMD) which is a disorder linked to an individual’s sex. DMD is characterized by the loss of muscle fiber, increased fibrosis, and later a complete loss of the functional muscle due to dysfunction of a critical protein known as dystrophin in the muscle (Hassan, Mai, & Christenson, 2009). Experimental research with mice led to the discovery that the use of an insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) resulted in the mouse regaining the muscles. Additionally, the researchers realized that the insertion of a gene with the ability to encode IGF-1 into the cells of the muscle had the same impact. Further research findings into the same reveal striking evidence of the gene doping magic. The research, however, is still underway and the effects are yet to be tested on patients diagnosed with DMD.

Moreover, scientists have also been able to demonstrate that when mice are injected with a gene that can encode a protein known as PPAR that burns fat, the animals can run, compared to their littermates, double the distance (Schneider & Friedmann, 2006). What is raising people’s concerns about these rigorous works by researchers is the possibility of athletes exploiting the findings at the expense of upholding sports integrity. The results could have significant impacts on athletes; especially long-distance runners as well as swimmers. Gene modification for enhancement of muscle performance may also be exploited by weight lifters. The researchers, on the other hand, argue that they are venturing into the area to find out if they can establish their therapeutic uses.

The preceding experimental studies by geneticists provide a vivid picture of how genetic doping works. The modification of one’s genes or the introduction of foreign genes by a healthy individual would result in gene doping (Hassan, Mai, & Christenson, 2009). Focusing on the methods through which gene doping may occur, we consider somatic cell modification. The person’s genes are changed by interfering with the body cells, for instance, those of the lungs or muscles. Just like in the laboratory mouse, the individual’s genetic orientation would be greatly modified resulting in enhanced endurance as compared to normal performance.

For long-distance runners, gene doping would result in the encoding of the PPAR protein which in turn increases the rate of fat-burning. This will ensure that the athlete will go for an extremely long distance without experiencing exhaustion. Furthermore, the injection of oneself with the IGF-1 gene will lead to enhanced muscle development. The muscle-gene modification would translate to a stronger body and hence enhanced performance. Incidences of such gene doping would most likely be a common phenomenon among weight lifters. The encoding of the proteins in the muscles ensures the activation of the nuclei of the muscle cell. It has been found that the satellite cells are the ones that respond to the introduced IGF-1 gene which induces increased rates of cell division.

Having discussed the development of gene doping and its possible misuse, we shall consider the implication of the impending crisis to the geneticists. With the assurance of possible abuse of gene therapy, scientists are working on how to detect these using reliable scientific methods that would not expose athletes to unwarranted defamation (Schneider & Friedmann, 2006). WADA has strategized itself such that it would always be way ahead of the crisis and be in a position to handle it effectively unlike the steroid era during which the abuse was detected long after it had occurred. The effects of gene doping would even be worse because the resultant effects cannot be detected easily. The cells produced by the foreign gene are similar to the ones produced naturally. In response, WADA has resorted to finding alternative methods of detection (Filipp, 2007). They seek to come up with scientific ways of measuring protein levels as well as the levels of given hormones in the client’s blood. The results would then be compared with a database set as the reference (Filipp, 2007). However, the effectiveness and the effects of the methods are yet to be established.

The essay has discussed the scientific understanding of gene doping and how the impending crisis is to be handled using scientific approaches. Gene doping has been defined as a deliberate deviation from legal gene therapy to enhance performance, especially among athletes. Various methods that can be used in gene doping have been mentioned, with special emphasis on somatic cell modification.


Filipp, F. (2007). Is science killing sports? Gene therapy and its possible abuse in doping. EMBO Reports, 8(5).

Hassan, A. M., Mai, M. M., & Christenson, R. H. (2009). Gene doping: Of mice and men. Science Direct/Clinical Biochemistry, 42(6), 435-441. Web.

Schneider, A. J. & Friedmann, T. (2006). Gene modification in sports: the scientific understanding of genetically doped athletes. Elsevier Inc. Web.

Wells, D. J. (2008). Gene doping: the hype and the reality. British Journal of Pharmacology, 154(3), 1-20. Web.