Athletes at Rio Olympics Could Face
Advanced Antidoping Technology
From Chemical & Engineering News
BY SARAH EVERTS
Athletes who attended the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro may eventually face a new kind of doping test: one that checks whether they have received performance-enhancing gene therapy. According to the International Olympic Committee’s medical and scientific director, Richard Budgett, samples
collected in Rio will be tested for gene doping at some point,
even though the test was not run during the Olympics itself.
Officials want to know whether athletes have been given synthetic DNA that codes for erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that
increases red blood cell production and, consequently, athletic
performance, said Carl Johan Sundberg, an exercise physiologist
at Karolinska Institute and member of the World Anti-Doping
Agency’s gene doping panel. Sundberg explained the technique
that Olympic officials plan to use to test for gene doping at
the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) conference, held July
23–27 in Manchester, England.
Retroactive testing isn’t good news for doping ath-
letes. When scientists retested fluid samples from ath-
letes competing at previous Olympics Games, namely
Beijing’s 2008 and London’s 2012 Summer Games,
many more athletes tested positive for banned sub-
stances than with prior analyses. The tests, car-
ried out with improved analytical techniques,
revealed that, on average, 8% of the athletes
at those two games actually tested posi-
tive for banned substances, up from an
average of less than 1% observed in past games. The increase is
“sensational,” said Arne Ljungqvist, a 1952 high-jump Olympic
athlete and former vice president of the World Anti-Doping
Agency (WADA), at the ESOF session.
Add these data to other recent doping scandals, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has had its hands full lately. In
July, the IOC announced that Russian athletes could participate
in the Rio Games, despite evidence of sample tampering at the
2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and indications of an entrenched
doping culture in the country’s athletic community.
It is not known yet whether WADA doping labs found any
athletes guilty of gene doping at the Rio Olympics. Just before
the start of the Olympics, there was no evidence that Olympic
athletes had undergone gene doping, according to Sundberg. But
then again, “the test has never been used before,” he added.
Even so, evidence does exist that at least one German coach
tried to organize gene doping for his athletes more than a
decade ago: In a 2006 trial, prosecutors exhibited e-mails
written by former German Athletics Association coach
Thomas Springstein in which he requested EPO gene dop-
ing products from his drug dealer.
Although only a handful of gene therapy procedures
to treat disease have been approved by worldwide
regulators, WADA started considering the possi-
bility that athletes might abuse gene doping in
2002, and in 2003 it added gene doping to its
list of prohibited substances and methods.
Turkish weight lifter Sibel Özkan was
recently stripped of the silver medal she
won at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
after retesting showed that she had doped.
PHOTO: XINHUA / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO