Day 082 - Performance enhancing drugs

Submitted by Sam on 10 August, 2011 - 23:57

Drugs originally designed to treat medical conditions are frequently becoming repurposed for non medical uses (and vice-versa as recreational drugs like marajuana are repurposed for therapeutic purposes). Examples include the drugs that were originally designed to combat attention deficit disorder, such as Modafinil and Ritalin, finding new off-label use as sleep depressants and as enhancers of alertness and concentration. Vascular endothelial growth factors, used clinically to promote the growth of new blood vessels after injury, have found utility with athletes wanting to pump more blood to gain competitive advantage. People are willing to go to great lengths to succeed, and many voluntarily alter their bodies with drugs and therapies to achieve their goals; sometimes even using growth factors to reclaim the hormone levels of their youth, resisting the decline of ageing to restore their 'natural' level of performance.

Drugs are now beginning to target our genes themselves, using retroviruses as delivery mechanisms to infect cells with new genetic code. Whilst most gene therapy trials to date have either failed or suffered from debilitating side-effects, some success are beginning to show the potential of this treatment. As we refine gene therapy techniques and begin to understand more about its processes, the trend of therapeutic repurposing is likely to extend to this new technology, and some people will undoubtedly want to alter their genes for non-medical purposes.

Eero Mäntyranta, former Finnish Olympic skier, initially suspected of doping, was found to have a naturally occurring genetic mutation which increased his red blood cell mass, and therefore oxygen carrying capacity and thus physical fitness, in much the same way that drugs used to treat anaemia, like Erythropoietin, have been used by world-class cyclists in the Tour de France to drive performance boosts of up to fifteen percent above normal. This means that there is a very thin line between genetic performance enhancers and 'artificial' performance enhancers, which is becoming increasingly blurred the more we come to understand the roles of our hereditary genes. Indeed, a study of twins recently argued that two-thirds of genetic ability is determined by the inheritance of genes related to athlete status. It is now feasible to analyze genes for endurance and fitness before a child is even born, and we already have a library of over two-hundred gene variants which correspond to improved athletic performance, including those that increase the prevalence of fast twitch muscles, increase aerobic capacity and increase cardio-respiratory fitness.

As we decode our genes, it is becoming increasingly clear that some athletes have an 'unfair' natural advantage simply through the virtue of being born with a certain sequence of proteins in their genome. Is it fair that these people, through no fault or effort of their own, are being rewarded for having a gene that results in a 25% extra increase in their oxygen carrying capacity?

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