No one thinks that gene doping is rampant, at least not yet, but its inherent dangers may not be enough to deter would-be users. In 2007, German track coach Thomas Springstein sent an email to a Dutch doctor asking for advice on how to acquire Repoxygen, a gene therapy designed to turn on the body’s production of red blood cells. Its developer, pharmaceutical firm Oxford Biomedica, was looking to develop Repoxygen as an anaemia treatment, but the drug has never been tested in humans, and it is not clear that Springstein ever got his hands on it. Still, the development is worrying because it shows how reckless dopers are willing to be, says Friedmann.
“It’s not rocket science,” says Friedmann. “Someone who wants to gene dope could easily gather people well-enough trained in molecular biology to do it.” Given the troubles that have plagued legitimate gene therapy, the results of rogue gene doping is likely to be disastrous. “There’s money to be made there, and lots of [researchers] who can’t find jobs might be convinced to try it,” Friedmann says.
Wada has had a gene doping research program since 2002. “A lot of people told us it would never be possible to detect gene doping, but we’ve we achieved some major breakthroughs,” Rabin says. He’s not revealing too much yet, but regardless of how far such tests have come, would-be dopers of any stripe cannot rest easy.
That’s because retrospective testing – the kind that caught out Rashid Ramzi after the 2008 Beijing Games – is now standard. At the time of Ramzi’s win, there was no test for the blood-boosting hormone he had used in the run up to the Games. But when that changed shortly after the fireworks of the closing ceremony, the IOC decided to retrospectively test hundreds of samples, catching him and five others out.
Officials with the London Olympics have already announced plans to store samples taken during the 2012 Games for eight years, allowing them to be retested as new technologies become available. “We can’t promise that these will be cleanest Games ever, but if people are cheating here, we will catch them,” says Jonathan Harris. Dopers could steal the glory of standing on the podium in London, he says, but they will spend the next eight years looking over their shoulders wondering when the testers will catch up.
(18/04) The article has been updated to correct inaccuracies about gene therapy.