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At some point after the conclusion of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, officials will start testing for a new performance-enhancing drug: Blood.
Synthetic DNA that codes for erythropoietin, or EPO, enhances production of red blood cells, leading to improved athletic performance. It isn’t new to competitive athletics — it ended Lance Armstrong’s cycling career — but Olympic athletes have never been tested for it.
The International Olympic Committee has gone to great lengths through rules and testing to keep performance enhancing drugs out of the Games, but researchers say advanced anti-doping techniques promise to find current and past use.
The IOC is looking into genetic tests for doping not only because past use of substances such as human growth hormone and IGF-1 can be detected months after athletes stop using them, but because of the potential prevalence for EPO or other cell doping not caught by current testing methods.
“In the future, athletes may transplant cells to improve heart and muscle strength and endurance,” Sundberg told Chemical and Engineering News. “You might think it sounds like a bit of science fiction, but it might quite soon not really be so.”
Lance Armstrong was caught using a plethora of banned substances, including cortisone, HGH and testosterone, but his use of EPO and blood doping is not among the more well-known methods of cheating. Retroactive testing found he was using the substance as far back as 1999, which is why his medals and wins were stripped by cycling officials going back to 1998.
There are several tests for EPO, Sundberg said. One expected to be used with Olympic athletes looks for differences between naturally-coded EPO and synthetic EPO DNA inserted as part of gene therapy. Other techniques look at sugars on the protein, which Sundberg said can be a “smoking gun” for gene doping.
Retroactive testing has been effective at measuring true levels of Olympic athlete doping in the past. Fluid samples from athletes at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and London in 2012 showed 8 percent of athletes using banned substances — a significant increase from the 1 percent seen in previous Olympics.
Gene therapy is only now coming into popular focus as a method of disease treatment, but it has been looked at for more than a decade by Olympic and athletics organizations as gene doping was prohibited from use in 2003.
In 2006, a coach with the German Athletics Association was shown in emails to have requested EPO doping products as well, suggesting the method is not news to high-level athletes.
Although Sundberg said there is no evidence suggesting athletes in Rio have used gene doping, based on history, and the desire of all athletes to find an edge over their opponents, the lack of evidence could be blamed on one simple fact: “The test has never been used before.”