By the Next Olympics, Athletes May Be Getting Routine Gene Doping Tests
After Ye Shiwen shocked the Olympics with her performance in the 400 meter individual medley, swimming the last 50 meters faster than Ryan Lochte, the men’s champion in the event, a long-time American coach ominously hinted that perhaps a new kind of performance enhancement had arrived on the athletic scene.
“If there is something unusual going on in terms of genetic manipulation or something else, I would suspect over eight years science will move fast enough to catch it,” John Leonard, the American executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, said.
It’s important to note that there is no evidence that Ye engaged in any doping practice, let alone something as new and high-tech as genetic manipulation.
But, the fact that genetic manipulation was even on the table or in the ether as the example Leonard gave in his accusation is remarkable. So I set out to find out how scientifically plausible it might be for Ye — or any athlete — to enhance his or her performance with current gene doping technology.
The context here could not get larger. Ever since humans deduced the powerful nature of DNA and all the associated molecules that do work in our cells, people have wondered: how long before we can simply change our own genes? On the one hand, all kinds of genetic diseases could be cured. On the dark side, if genetics sets the limits of human action, how long before we create genetically enhanced humans? And, like many things in bioethics, these thoughts are never very far away from the long shadow of the Nazis’ eugenics program.
These fears and hopes have traveled with all kinds of work on the genome from Watson and Crick through the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA to the earliest gene trials and the sequencing of the human genome. But until very recently, we had no evidence that transferring genes into human cells was helpful at all. In the early 2000s, gene therapy suffered a series of setbacks, including the high-profile death of a young patient. In the words of the Mayo Clinic, “The possibilities of gene therapy hold much promise. To date, however, that promise has not been realized.”