Yes, Biotech can help you win the Olympic Games of Rio

rio olympics 2016 biotech doping

The world’s eyes are set on the 2016 edition of the Summer Olympics, which started in Rio de Janeiro last week. I had a look at how Biotech has been involved in the Olympics – and how it could define it in the future.

olympic games rio 2016 dopingThe Summer Olympics of 2016 have been marked by its fair share of controversy. And not by the slightly confusing fact that, technically, it’s now Winter in Brazil.

No, the Olympics have been fighting science – or at least science-related problems. These include the epidemic of Zika virus, how the Guanabara Bay probably needs a bioremediation miracle and, finally, doping.

rio olympics 2016 gene doping
The Olympic Flag flies in front of ”Christ the Redeemer” statue during a blessing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro August 19, 2012. (© Reuters/Ricardo Moraes)

While this year’s most prominent case is the Russian doping scandal, sports and doping are about as much of a couple as cops and thieves (or bacteria and antibiotics).

There’s a lot of doping agents, most of them small molecules. But biologicals also have a place in doping. There’s one that stands out – erythropoietin (EPO), a protein hormone that controls the production of red blood cells. Amgen developed it in 1989, and it became a blockbuster drug. Its main indication was anemia in patients with kidney disease or cancer.

However, EPO was also a popular choice for doping in endurance sports, as it increases overall oxygen levels in the blood. The use of EPO was behind the Tour de France doping scandals, with cycling legend Lance Armstrong being stripped of all of its titles.

epo doping red blood cells gene doping
Fig. 1: EPO is an hormone that stimulates production of red blood cells, increasing hemoglobin in the blood and overall capacity to oxygenate the body.

Now, other types of Biotech doping may be on the cards – and it could reshape competitive sports as much as Biotech changed cancer treatments. Cell and gene therapies could be used to boost sports performance, posing new challenges to doping detection.

In particular, gene doping could be a growing concern. After all, the ‘right’ genes are a big factor for athlectic performance. Just as projects in genomics are associating gene variations and disease risk, more than 200 gene variants have been linked to outstanding sporting performance so far (according to a Nature study). A funny fact? One of them is a variant of the EPO gene. If our Biotech reading list for the Summer is not enough for you, you can read more about this in the book The Sports Gene.

The possibility that athletes may tinker with their genome has been a talking point for many years. However, the fact that gene therapy finally reached its first regulatory approvals makes it sound much more plausible. Then, there’s the recent case of DIY (and illegal) gene therapy for anti-ageing. Should the story be true, it highlights how easy black market gene therapy could be.

gene doping gene therapy regulatory approval
The basis of gene therapy. (P0 NIH)

In the Rio Olympics, doping tests will already be looking for extra copies of the EPO gene in the athlete’s genomes, extracted from blood samples. But detection is not that straightforward. There are hundreds of genes that could be modified. Depending on the administration site, the modified cells could not be present in the blood – and therefore undetectable with simple tests.

Then there’s the next frontier of gene editing, which could be even more complicated to detect. Of course, this includes CRISPR, which is now giving its first steps towards human trials. For example, no transgenes are detected in CRISPR-edited crops. And editing the epigenome could be the next thing – epigenome sequencing is now kicking off.

crispr gene editing biotech doping
Fig. 2: CRISPR can do very precise modifications to genes, such as insertion or deletion of small sequences. Unlike current gene therapies, it could edit the existing genes in a given person.

In fact, New Scientist makes the point that it could be more ethical to drop the doping bans, instead of insisting on unreliable testing or pushing athletes to under-the-table medical procedures. It’s argued that more reasonable standards could be based on safety, such as a maximum red blood cell count. Athletes could then have high levels of red blood cells either from naturally having a ‘lucky’ EPO gene, or through gene doping or injecting the protein.

In the end, the hard-to-spot Biotech doping could force competitive sports into reshaping the definition of fair-play. In a way, it could level the playing field of genetic advantages – in a similar way to how money can get teams the best training.

On the other hand, even if doping was accepted, what would be considered safe or unsafe? How would performance-enhancing gene and cell therapies be developed and regulated? Would athletes be in a regulatory limbo, where they would be allowed to improve their genes and bodies? Or DIY gene therapy could stop being illegal for everyone?

Figure Image Credit: Pixabay
Figure 1 Credit: Jelkmann and Lundby (2011) Blood doping and its detection. Blood  (doi: 10.1182/blood-2011-02-303271)
Figure 2 Credit: Agortis and Ketteler (2015) A new age in functional genomics using CRISPR/Cas9 in arrayed library screening. Frontiers in Genetics (doi: 10.3389/fgene.2015.00300)


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