How realistic are genetically modified athletes?
Will genetically enhanced athletes be competing in the Olympics of the future?
Nearly 30 years ago, the UK's top athletes were invited to take part in a survey, with one of the questions being"Would you be willing to take a drug that would guarantee you a gold medal but also kill you within five years?"
The astounding reality was that half of those surveyed answered that they would.
"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play," George Orwell once wrote. Indeed, it has become rather problematic to decide what is actually fair in sport and what is not. Social morality has evolved to the point when taking performance-enhancing drugs is clearly unacceptable, yet it is fine, for example, to exercise at high altitude and then reproduce the results at low altitudes thus getting an obvious advantage over the athletes who - for one reason or another - were deprived of such an opportunity. How about a carefully engineered diet, or, say, the cutting-edge trainers, swimming costumes and other sporting gear which athletes from poorer countries simply cannot afford? Is there a real moral difference between the engineering of a diet and performance-enhancing drugs?
One interesting example is given by Dave Stevens in The Gen, newsletter of the Genomics Network: "Imagine an archer who typically wears glasses to correct her imperfect eyesight. The spectacles actually improve her vision beyond the average. Given she wears them all the time, is she cheating when she competes? What about if she had eye surgery to correct her vision, again making it better than average? And if she had gene therapy to address the problem with the same result?"
Yes, the fact is, gene therapy and genetic enhancement are no longer the realm of science fiction. Their various practical implications: scientific, social and ethical – were heatedly discussed during the recent forum 'Genomics in Society: Facts, Fictions and Cultures', organised by Genomics Network in London.
But to begin with: what is genomics, and how does it differ from genetics?
What is genomics?
Genomics is just the study of genomes. Every living organism on earth – from a human being to a flu virus – carries a genome with information essential for its proper development. Genomes are made of a nucleic acid, either DNA or RNA, arranged in sections called chromosomes. Comparing the genomes of different species and individuals not only gives scientists an insight into how life in general has evolved, but also offers a lot of data about each individual's unique genetic makeup.
The more that has been discovered about the genome, the harder it has become to isolate the actual genes in it. And whereas a gene provides the information for making a protein – one of the molecules that defines most biological functions – other parts of genome, it appears, may be involved in producing proteins too.
If formerly it was thought that only 2 per cent of a genome was involved in producing the coded sequences which determine the order of chemical constituents in proteins, and the remaining 98 per cent of it was useless junk, now it appears that most of the genome serves a plethora of vital functions which determine individual characteristics, from race and skin colour to height, weight and, yes, sporting prowess.
This is where the main difference between genomics and genetics lies: the former marks a much broader understanding of biological processes.
The sheer scale of a human genome is mind-boggling. If unravelled, it would stretch to two metres, and if one were to write out in one line all the coded letters (As, Ts, Cs and Gs), denoting all the genes in the human genome and representing different parts of it, they would add up to a string of three billion characters – that's around 600 bibles.
On the other hand, sequencing technology is so advanced now that it is possible to read an entire human genome in just a couple of months. This has led to a situation when in the near future it will be possible at an affordable price to analyse an entire person's genome online to reveal whether he or she will or could develop heart disease, stroke, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia, depression or theoretically any other life-threatening health condition.
The benefit of an affordable sequencing technology of a human genome is that it will give doctors and patients an advance warning and ample time to apply appropriate treatment. Yet it also poses questions over who should have access to the information which could also lead to stigmatisation and discrimination; of how and where this sensitive data will be stored, and many other ethical dilemmas.
A gene for sprinting?
These were among many other moral and ethical issues of modern genomics debated at the London Forum, including a heated discussion on different race-specific genetic briefs for beta-blockers and other cardiological drugs – a totally new area defying political correctness by establishing that race in the laboratory is part of a genetic identity and therefore different from race in society.
The problem of genetically modified Olympians, or rather of genetic enhancement as applied to athletes, was also on everyone's minds in this year's Olympic host city.
Steven Yearley, director of the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum and professor of the sociology of scientific knowledge at Edinburgh University, says: "Two key aspects of modern genomics mean that the old nature versus nurture divide is long out of date and, with very few exceptions, the characteristics that matter to us have a very complicated genomic basis.
"In this Olympic year it matters a lot to some of us how fast a specific adult can run over a short distance at his or her peak, and this no doubt has a genetic underpinning. But this ability is attributable to a large combination of genes, some of which matter now and some of which mattered earlier in the athlete's life.
"Two very fast runners may have different bases for their ability, so there is clearly no gene for sprinting. Even for something that seems like a straightforward physical characteristic – one's height – it turns out that after one screens out statistically the impact of childhood health and feeding and other environmental influences, then height is related to dozens of genetic variations.
"So, even with physical attribute that seems to be strongly influenced by genetical underpinnings, there is actually no gene for the attribute. Both among athletes and among your friends – tall and short – their heights will be a complicated combination of both genetic and other biological and environmental factors."
From Professor Yearley's words, it becomes obvious that even if genes do not play a decisive role in this or that athlete's sporting performance at any given moment, their impact is still considerable and cannot be neglected.
GMOs on the march
So, are we now facing a possibility that in the future athletes will be divided into different leagues depending on the level of their genetic preparedness - similar to the present-day separate competitions and records for male and female athletes?
Or how about special leagues or divisions for those who are "genetically disadvantaged"? Or perhaps even separate Olympic games for the genetically enhanced?
And will Olympians of the future have to be vetted not just by the World Anti-Doping Agency but also by some sort of a genetic enhancement regulatory authority?
There is no consensus about it all, even inside the professional genomics community, where opinions differ substantially. And while Professor John Dupre, director of Egenis, believes that in the future moral objections to genetic enhancement will be replaced by the spectators' desire "to watch the fastest people scientists can construct", without asking "too many questions about how they do it", his colleague Dr Martyn Pickersgill of Innogen, disagrees by saying that if one day we got to a point when some kind of genetic enhancement was possible, the attempts to police it one way or another would definitely be made by sports regulators.
And this is the key point: right or wrong, genetic enhancement in sport is technologically not yet possible and it is hard to predict when and whether it will be.
So the chances that some participants of the 2020 or the 2024 Olympics will be disqualified by a controlling body for an excessive genetic enhancement are slim. Which also means that the very phrase "genetically modified Olympians" (or GMOs, as they have already been dubbed in the media) will most probably remain what it is now – an intriguing, yet totally unrealistic, soundbite.
In the meantime, genomics has other important moral and scientific issues to sort out: should people be obliged to find out about their future health and what are the possible implications if they do or do not find out; should we use genomes of key parasites, bacteria and viruses to swap useful genes between species to improve our crops; can a virus be manipulated to develop an ultimate bioweapon – to name just a few...
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