Media Release |
Feb. 6, 2006
UBC Researcher Developing New Test to Detect “Gene Doping” in Athletes
A University of British Columbia researcher is developing a new test to screen “gene-doping” in athletes. Although genetic therapy is listed as a banned practice in sports, officials fear it will be the next form of doping. As yet there are no tests available to detect it.
Asst. Prof. James Rupert at the School of Human Kinetics plans to have a prototype test ready within three years. It will flag genetic manipulation that augments the body’s production of erythropoietin (EPO). EPO is a naturally occurring hormone involved in producing blood cells.
Used medically to treat anemia, synthetic EPO already ranks among the most commonly abused doping agents in endurance sports. The synthetic version of the hormone is delivered via injections to increase the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity, thereby enhancing aerobic performance.
Gene doping means that extra copies of the EPO-producing gene are transferred directly into cells. This increases the person’s ability to produce more EPO and bypass the need for hormone injections.
Gene therapy is in its infancy, but growing and legal medical interest has focused on EPO gene therapy as a viable treatment for anemia due to kidney failure. The EPO protein is produced in the kidneys.
“If the EPO gene has been inserted the person’s cells, there will be a distinct pattern of changes in gene activity compared to natural patterns,” says Rupert, whose project received US $275,000 from the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Current WADA and the International Olympic Committee tests can detect synthetic EPO that is injected into the body. Rupert’s test will measure gene activity and distinguish between the effects of naturally occurring levels of EPO and those caused by gene therapy.
“Unscrupulous doctors, athletes and coaches are going to think twice before experimenting with EPO gene doping if they know a test exists that can catch it,” says Rupert.
WADA has identified genetic manipulation as the next frontier for cheating and held an international symposium on gene doping this past December in Stockholm, Sweden.