by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted June 4, 2007 in DNA Testing, Genetic Engineering
If I were given a choice between gene therapy for mental or athletic prowess, I would choose mental prowess without a thought. Not being a natural born athlete has biased me towards thinking that brains outrank brawn. But for many people, athletics are just as important as academics if not more so. Many promising young athletes are tempted by the boost anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs give them. Once genetic enhancements are available, we spectators may get to see some pretty spectacular sporting competitions.
Athletes have already been the focus of studies seeking to understand the genetic underpinnings of physical abilities. As many as 500 genes and DNA markers may be associated with athletic performance and health-related fitness. Scientists have bioengineered mice with larger-than-average muscles by knocking out the myostatin gene (these mice have been knicknamed â€Schwarzenegger miceâ€).
Itâ€™s hard to determine what athletes are allowed to do to improve their abilities without being called a â€œcheat.â€ If we expect them to rely on their natural born abilities, should they not engage in any vigorous training or take vitamin supplements? Maybe only children whoâ€™ve never received any real coaching are true athletes. Michael J. Sandel wrote in The Atlantic (subscription only) that because natural, inborn talents differ, thereâ€™s no such thing as fairness in sports. So, drug/gene doping in sports would not necessarily lead to a new disparity between those who have access and those who donâ€™t (think industrialized vs developing countries at the Olympics).
At the Cheltenham Science Festival this week, there will be a session on genetic testing or manipulation to enhance sports led by professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University, Greg Whyte. He believes athletes in many sports have reached the limits of innate human ability. In a Times UK article, Diving Into The Gene Pool, it was suggested that scientists would control the fate of athletes by predicting who would be the winner based on “performance genes.”
They’ve got to be kidding, right? Even world class sprinters can fall and trip in a race. Anyone remember Mary Decker in the 1984 Olympics? As awesome as someone’s genes and physical abilities may be, environment still intervenes. An unfamiliar arena, bad weather, injury, flu, and all manner of other events out of an athlete’s and his/her coach’s control can and do determine the outcome of a sporting event. Think Tanya Harding.
Update: John Hawks points to an article in the New York Times on the use of gene therapy drug Repoxygen in sports training. Originally designed for use in treating anemia, Repoxygen could become one of the ways in which athletes use gene therapy to boost their endurance and stamina.
Update 2: Carol Torgan atÂ Body Shop reported on Genes and Sports Medicine as discussed at the 54th Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine.
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