Could the Beijing Games be the First to Feature Genetically Modified Athletes?

Ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, leading British scientist Dr. Andy Miah has warned that athletes may be injecting themselves with "super DNA." This year's games are believed by some to feature a new generation of "genetically modified" athletes who have had their performance improved by the injection of foreign DNA. Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs which are now easily detected in drug testing seem like a much smaller problem in comparison to the possibility of genetic modification.

The Beijing Olympics may very well be the first Olympics to be tainted by so-called "gene doping". The process of gene doping involves genes being inserted into muscles or bone cells, and their proteins fed directly into the tissue or red blood cells. Typically this is done by injecting, or more rarely, inhaling, the required DNA. Gene doping was placed on the list of banned substances and methods by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2003.

Dr. Miah, who is currently in Beijing conducting research during the Games, said:

"Gene doping is the next major headache for the world of sport. In 2004, people were starting to talk about its use at the Athens Olympics. This year in Beijing, the case is even stronger that this will be the first genetically modified Games. Many scientists will say it's still not possible, but I'm not taking this for granted. We need to assume that it's happening. It's already feasible."

"There is no other technology that is likely to change the Olympics [more] than gene doping. It's not possible to detect and there's a good chance that it will never be detectable in any meaningful sense."

"This forces the world of sport to reconsider what it does about testing. It's time for their plans to change. It's time for the era of human enhancement to take full effect in the Olympics."

Miah is a bioethics researcher at the University of the West of Scotland and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies in the United States. He has also written several books on the subject.

To date, gene doping has been largely considered a hypothetical threat, and many still believe that it won't be a factor until 2012 when the Olympics are held in London.

However, Dr. Miah's warnings about the potential for gene doping at the Beijing Games come just weeks after a documentary revealed a hospital doctor in China who was prepared to give illegal performance enhancing gene therapy treatment to an Olympic swimmer. A German television investigator caught the doctor on camera stating that he wanted approximately $25,000 for a two-week long treatment that would strengthen the hypothetical US swimmer's lungs.

The documentary was broadcast on Germany's main channel this month by ARD. It showed the head of a hospital gene therapy department in China being approached by a fake swimming coach (the investigator) looking for stem-cell treatment. The doctor confirmed that they could help, and explained the process as follows:

"It strengthens lung function and stem cells go into the bloodstream and reach the organs. It takes two weeks.

"I recommend four intravenous injections ... 40 million stem cells or double that, the more the better. We also use human growth hormones, but you have to be careful because they are on the doping list."

So unless the Chinese doctor was lying and Dr. Miah is off-track, genetic doping appears to be a very real possibility during the 2008 Olympic Games. What may tip the world off to these new methods being used would be a larger number of records broken.

For their part, WADA says that they have been preparing for genetic doping since 2002, and operate under the assumption that athletes will try anything to get ahead. They are confident that they will be able to combat the emerging technique.