Friday, August 8, 2008

DNA: The New Culprit In Doping

The competitive spirit has been taken so seriously in the world of sport, it really amazes me to see the extent to which any team or an individual would go to gain that precious little advantage which would ultimately result in a win. It’s about winning at all costs.

With the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games 2008 being conducted with all the glamour and jazz in China, I am writing this post trying to lull myself into false sense of security and hope that this edition of the Summer Olympics will turn out to be a clean one.

However, the lead up to the Olympic Games has been anything but rosy. Accusations flying thick and fast about incidents of doping being encouraged by none other than the host nation itself, possibly points to vested interests trying to sully Beijing’s image. I am not a big fan of Beijing’s approach of branding the Olympics as green. (See my earlier article on: Red Dragon Breathes Fire At The Summit Of Mount Everest)

WADA has already set alarm bells ringing by raising concern regarding the use of gene therapy to increase an athlete’s performance. This method of doping is popularly known as Gene Doping.

Gene Doping is defined by the World Anti-Doping Agency as "the non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or of the modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to improve athletic performance."

Tinkering around with the genes, opens up an un-explored vista which might become an haven for cheats. There is an enormous potential here, wherein genes for increasing muscle mass, increasing oxygen carrying capacity of the red blood cells, energy production, reduction in muscle fatigue; can be taken out from an athlete’s body, duplicated and re-introduced into the athlete making him/her an super-athlete. Since the resulting effects are still natural, it becomes very difficult to distinguish cheats from honest athletes.

There are a lot of skeptics who say that Gene Doping will not work out as it is very risky and simply because no one has yet to set a precedent. But who knows? There might be athletes out there already who are using it.

WADA has established vigorous research programmes to develop new detection methods for Gene Doping.

When I was discussing this issue with one of my colleagues, I was left speechless when he pointed out that the latest molecular biological techniques such as DNA fingerprinting (or DNA Profiling) can be used to identify athletes with favorable genes which might give them an edge in a particular sports. The use of such techniques to screen out athletes might be in place already. “How are you going to stop them? Is it not unfair that an athlete participates in a sport, not because he is passionate about it, but he has a genetic profile which gives him a competitive edge in that particular sport?” I had no answer to these questions.

Funny, that this reminds me of one of the Harry Potter movies, where a hat is placed on the heads of new pupils, and the hat decides which house the pupil will belong to.

Image source: The Official Website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

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