Muscle building gene therapy might build super athletes, scientist warns By Paul Recer, Associated Press, 2/16/2004 16:20 SEATTLE (AP) Gene injections in rats can double muscle strength and speed, researchers have found, raising concerns that the virtually undetectable technology could be used illegally to build super athletes. A University of Pennsylvania researcher seeking ways to treat illness said studies in rats show muscle mass, strength and endurance can be increased by injections of a gene-manipulated virus that goes to muscle tissue and causes a rapid growth of cells. ''The things we are developing with diseases in mind could one day be used for genetic enhancement of athletic performance,'' Lee Sweeney said Monday at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Sports officials said the gene therapy has the potential of betraying the very essence of sport athletes using their natural talents and training to compete. Tom Murray of the Hastings Center, a research organization, said it would be like allowing an athlete to compete in the Boston Marathon wearing roller blades. ''Performance enhancing drugs have been a concern in sports and gene therapy has the potential to kick it up a notch,'' said Murray, who has studied the issue of doping in sports. ''It makes the challenges greater (of controlling performance-enhancing measures).'' Murray said he ''has no doubt athletes will be in touch with Sweeney'' when they learn of his research. Sweeney said that already half the e-mails he receives are from athletes or sports trainers. Richard Pound of McGill University and the World Anti-Doping Agency, said the sports community lost control of drugs for performance-enhancement in the 1960s to 1990s and ''we've been playing catch-up ever since.'' Now gene therapy looms as an even more serious threat, he said. ''Sport is and should be an effort to see how far you can go with your natural talents honed by exercise and skill perfection,'' he said, and not by manipulating genes to build muscle. He said international sports already has regulations forbidding gene therapy for performance improvement and his agency hopes to be active in efforts to control use of the technique as the science develops. Sweeney said that his laboratory studies show that injecting into muscles a manipulated virus that carries a gene for insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1) causes target muscles in rats to grow in size and strength by 15 to 30 percent. The inserted gene causes formation of extra IGF1 which, in turn, prompts the growth of muscle cells. When the technique was used on rats that were also put through an exercise program, the animals doubled their muscle strength, he said. ''If a normal person would inject this, their muscles would get stronger without them doing anything,'' Sweeney said. ''If they are athletes in training, the rat study indicates that their training would be much more effective, injury would be overcome more easily and the effect of the training would last a much longer time.'' The effect appeared to last throughout the life of the rats. He said the technique was designed so that the IGF1 gene stays in the target muscle and does not move into the blood stream where it could cause damage to other organs. Sweeney said the gene therapy was being developed to treat muscular dystrophy and the natural decline in muscle strength associated with aging. Unlike performance-enhancing drugs, Sweeney said the gene therapy could not be detected by blood or urine tests. He said it would require a biopsy of specific muscles followed by a sophisticated DNA laboratory study to detect the use of gene therapy in an athlete. Sweeney said because of the potential of cancer and other side effects, it may be years before the muscle-strengthening gene therapy is ready for human trials. ''There are issues of safety,'' he said. ''It is not going to be as trivial as taking a drug.'' Sweeney said the gene therapy technique is highly complex and requires expert laboratory preparation. ''This is not something an athlete could do in his garage,'' he said. ''The athlete couldn't do this without a lot of help.'' He said that some countries, in a drive for athlete glory, could allow the gene therapy, just as earlier in history Olympic programs in some countries tolerated the use of performance-enhancing drugs. ''That is the short-term fear,'' Sweeney said.