WADA Gene Doping Symposium Calls for Greater Awareness, Strengthened Action against Potential Gene Transfer Misuse in Sport

Participants in the third Gene Doping Symposium organized by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) with the support of the Russian sport authorities today called for greater interactions among the sports community, professional scientific organizations, licensing agencies and clinical research oversight bodies to stimulate awareness of the potential illicit use of gene transfer techniques for athletic and other enhancement purposes, and to develop appropriate sanction mechanisms for illegal or unethical application of gene transfer in sport, following a two-day meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The meeting was the third such meeting sponsored by WADA following on those held in 2002 in New York, USA, and in 2005 in Stockholm, Sweden. The Saint Petersburg symposium gathered more than 60 participants from 16 countries and included experts in gene transfer, scientists from the field of anti-doping, representatives from sports and public authorities, and ethicists.

Participants discussed advances in gene transfer therapies and in the development of detection methods for the potential misuse of gene transfer in sport, boundaries between therapy and enhancement from both technical and ethical perspectives, as well as legal frameworks and law enforcement issues relating to gene doping.

"Most experts do not think that gene transfer is being misused by athletes yet, but we know that there is a growing level of interest in the sports world in the potential for gene doping, and that scientists working on potential genetic cures for muscle diseases or blood disorders are being approached by sports figures to inquire about the use of genes to enhance performance in sport," said WADA Vice President Prof. Arne Ljungqvist. "We need to make sure that athletes know the dangers associated with these technologies, and, for those who may choose to ignore them and cheat, that they will be caught."

Participants agreed on a number of key conclusions and recommendations, including the following:

  • Gene therapy is a reality, albeit an imperfect one, and the tools of gene transfer have proven to be therapeutically effective in a number of clinical studies, including especially the severe combined immunodeficiency diseases (SCID), several forms of cancer, genetic forms of retinal degeneration and blindness, and other diseases. Nevertheless, serious conceptual and technical problems continue to produce severe and unanticipated setbacks and adverse events, including death and the induction of leukemia in some patients.
  • The vigorous research program instituted and funded by WADA has led to significant progress toward a better understanding of the genetic and physiological effects of doping and of scientifically rigorous methods for more effective detection of pharmacological and gene-based doping. Scientific progress made through WADA-supported research studies that were summarized at the conference suggests that new detection methods are likely to emerge and will help to prevent tainting sport by gene doping. The WADA research program should maintain a vigorous effort to develop detection methods for gene doping in academic, private and commercial institutions and interact with academic, private economic, professional scientific and medical organizations to monitor developments in genetic enhancement technologies and to catalyze public and scientific awareness and public discussion of the potential benefits and dangers of gene-based doping.
  • Many forms of drugs and surgical enhancement of normal human traits are an accepted and growing practice in our societies for physical and mood modification. The financial and personal rewards for enhanced performance in sport indicate that sport will be one of the areas in which gene-based enhancement is first likely to arise. The world of sport therefore serves as a very effective setting in which to examine broad societal issues of enhancement and the unclear boundary between treatment and enhancement.
  • In addition to its traditional activities with governments, WADA is intensively developing relationships with international police and anti-criminal organizations to ensure that national and international laws penalize uncontrolled or illegal possession, commercialization and trafficking of prohibited substances and methods, including reagents for genetic manipulation. All genetic manipulations in human subjects and patients in most countries currently require extensive regulation and oversight at institutional, local and national levels, consistent with the Helsinki Declaration developed by the World Medical Association. Illicit application of gene transfer technology in sport is unlikely to comply with such standards, and therefore procedures are required to identify the legal and ethical safeguards and responses available to deter and to counter such uses of genetic technology. WADA is committed to ensuring safety and compliance with international ethical standards of human experimentation, and to intensifying interactions with governmental authorities, law enforcement, policy agencies and licensing authorities to define participation of licensed professionals in gene transfer manipulations outside the accepted oversight and approval procedure as constituting professional misconduct and to devise suitable sanctions.
  • The commercialization of genetic science and the worldwide market are affecting the development and accessibility by sport figures to materials and methods of potential use in genetic doping. WADA should facilitate interactions with public and commercial authorities to identify emergence of future doping agents or methods and to stimulate governments, sports authorities, private economic and scientific and medical sectors to regulate the promotion and dissemination of genetic enhancement technologies in a global marketplace. Anti-doping organizations should provide objective and reliable information to athletes, trainers and physicians, to allow them to assess critically the claims made on the Internet and elsewhere regarding the "power of genetics" to enhance athletic performance.

"Issues associated with gene transfer are multiple and complex," said WADA Director General David Howman. "By gathering top experts in various fields related to genetic enhancement, this fruitful symposium helped address them and further advance strategies to detect potential misuse of these technologies. WADA will continue to devote significant resources and attention to this specific area, to protect the integrity of sport and the health of athletes."

"This symposium was very encouraging," added Prof. Theodore Friedmann, Head of WADA Gene Doping Panel (a group of international experts that advises WADA on gene therapy, the methods for detecting doping, and the research projects funded by WADA in this area). "While detection methods are early in their development, I have no doubt that the ongoing work will catalyze public discussion and awareness in this field and that WADA will continue to be the leading agency in the application of modern molecular genetics and DNA technology to the development of improved methods for detection."