Gene doping is against the rules in many sports. In 2003, WADA put gene doping on its prohibited list [source: USADA]. Many sports governing bodies accept and use the list, thereby prohibiting gene doping for athletes participating in the Olympics, Paralympics and many other events [source: WADA]. However, the list isn't used in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association or the National Football League [source: Associated Press].
Scientists and doctors who inject genes into healthy people violate professional ethical codes. Universities and hospitals could penalize staff members for performing a human experiment not approved by an ethics committee. If the athlete were harmed, the doctor could be sued for malpractice and lose his or her medical license, says Maxwell Mehlman, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
But that said, the United States has no laws specifically banning gene doping. Genes aren't controlled substances, like heroin or steroids, so until laws are made, competitive athletes or just regular gymgoers could probably inject themselves with genes without going to court or jail, says Mehlman.
Laws aside, gene doping raises ethical issues, says Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a nonprofit bioethics institute in New York. Murray raises four arguments against allowing gene doping.
The first argument is the risk to the individual athlete, though the procedures will become safer and more reliable over time, he says. Second is unfairness. "Some athletes will get access to it before others, especially in safe and effective forms," he says. Third is the risk to other athletes. If gene doping were allowed, and one athlete tried it, everyone would feel pressured to try it so as not to lose. An enhancement arms race would follow. "Only athletes willing to take the largest amounts of genetic enhancements in the most radical combinations would have a chance at being competitive. The outcome would most assuredly be a public health catastrophe. And once everyone tried it, no one would be better off."
Finally, gene doping would change sports, Murray says. "Sports are in part constituted by their rules," he explains. "What if I showed up to the New York [City] Marathon wearing rollerblades?...Or suppose I came to the high jump wearing springs on my shoes…Or what if we let the pitcher stand as close to the batter as he wants?"
If these exceptions were allowed, the meaning of each sport would change, Murray says. The New York City Marathon would become a roller derby. The high jump would become a contest for finding the biggest springs. The baseball pitcher would stand next to the catcher, and the batter would bunt. "All the stuff we like about baseball -- the variety, the art of the double play, the great catches -- would disappear," Murray says.
Athletes and audiences should decide what they value in sports and whether allowing gene doping would dissolve those aspects, Murray says. "That will help us decide where to draw the line."
Keep reading to learn what other crazy uses people have thought up for their genes, like curing baldness.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- How can you tell if athletes alter their genes?
- Could gene therapy cure baldness?
- How Designer Children Will Work
- How DNA Works
- How Performance-enhancing Drugs Work
- Why can a trained athlete run a marathon, but a couch potato cannot run half a mile?
- How the Speedo LZR Swimsuit Works [podcast]
- How the First Olympics Worked
More Great Links
- Associated Press. "WADA Chief Urges Drug Tainted Sports to Clean Up." International Herald Tribune. August 10, 2008. (11/11/2008) http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/08/10/sports/AS-OLY-WADA-Doping.php
- Baruch, Susannah et al. "Human Germline Genetic Modification: Issues and Options for Policymakers." Washington, DC: Genetics and Public Policy Center. May 2005. (11/11/2008) http://www.dnapolicy.org/images/reportpdfs/HumanGermlineGeneticMod.pdf
- Binley, Katie et al. "Long-term Reversal of Chronic Anemia Using a Hypoxia-Regulated Erythropoietin Gene Therapy." Blood. Vol. 100. No. 7. October 1, 2002.
- Cam, F.S. et al. "Association between the ACE I/D gene polymorphism and physical performance in a homogenous non-elite cohort." Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology. Vol. 30. No. 1. February 2005.
- Dillman, Lisa. "As Swim Records Fall, High-Tech Suit Faces Scrutiny." The Los Angeles Times. March 27, 2008. (11/11/2008) http://articles.latimes.com/2008/mar/27/sports/sp-swim27
- Friedmann, Theodore. Personal interview. Conducted 10/29/2008.
- Gao, Guangping et al. "Erythropoietin Gene Therapy Leads to Autoimmune Anemia in Macaques." Blood. Vol. 103. No. 9. May 1, 2004.
- Geneforum. "Results from Oregon College Athlete Gene Doping Survey." 2005. (11/11/2008)http://www.geneforum.org/node/489.
- Grady, Denise. "A Lab Breeds a Mighty Mouse, With a Variety of Implications." The New York Times. May 1, 1997. (11/11/2008) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9807E0DA1131F932A35 756C0A961958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
- Hanna, Kathi. "Germline Gene Transfer." March 2006. (11/11/2008) http://www.genome.gov/10004764
- McCrory, P. "Super Athletes or Gene Cheats?" British Journal of Sports Medicine. Vol. 37. No. 3. June 2003.
- Mehlman, Maxwell. Personal interview. Conducted 11/11/2008.
- Murray, Thomas. "Gene Doping and Olympic Sport." Play True magazine. No. 1. 2005. (10/23/2008) http://www.wada-ama.org/rtecontent/document/Play_True_01_2005_en.pdf
- Murray, Thomas. Personal interview. Conducted 11/7/2008.
- Rankinen, Tuomo et al. "The Human Gene Map for Performance and Health-Related Fitness Phenotypes." Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Vol. 38. No. 11. November 2006.
- Raper, Steven et al. "Fatal Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome in a Ornithine Transcarbamylase Deficient Patient Following Adenoviral Gene Transfer." Molecular Genetics and Metabolism. Vol. 80. No. 1. September 2003.
- Staal, F.J.T. et al. "Sola dosis facit venenum. Leukemia in gene therapy trials: a question of vectors, inserts and dosage?" Leukemia. Vol. 22. No. 10. October 2008.
- Svensson, Eric et al. "Long-term erythropoietin expression in rodents and non-human primates following intramuscular injection of a replication-defective adenoviral vector." Human Gene Therapy. Vol. 8. No. 15. October 10, 1997.
- United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). "Guide to Prohibited Classes of Substances and Prohibited Methods of Doping." 2003. (11/20/2008) http://www.usantidoping.org/files/active/resources/press_releases/pressrelease_11_5_2002.pdf
- Wells, D.J. "Gene Doping: the Hype and the Reality." British Journal of Pharmacology. Vol. 154. No. 3. June 2008.
- World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). World Anti-Doping Code: Code Acceptance. 2008. (11/11/2008) http://www.wada-ama.org/en/dynamic.ch2?pageCategory.id=270