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Six Million Dollar Men: Will Future Olympians Be Technologically Enhanced?

Superhuman prostheses are already changing the way the Games are played. And gene therapy lies just around the next turn. What does this mean for future Olympians?

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The International Olympic Committee banned performance-enhancing gene therapy or “gene doping” back in 2003. Still, as gene therapy becomes more common —to replace crippling or lethal genetic defects with normal variants of malfunctioning genes, as just one example — Enriquez and Gullans suggest genetically modified athletes will get accepted into the Olympics.

“Eventually I think it will be very hard to police or stop genetic enhancement, especially with naturally occurring genes,” Enriquez says.

One might question whether safe and successful gene therapy may come in the near future for humans. Potential complications include dangerous immune responses against the viruses and other delivery mechanisms that carry therapeutic genes into the body. Such a response killed Jesse Gelsinger in 1999 during a clinical gene therapy trial. In addition, genes can wreak havoc when they accidentally get inserted where they should not go, as was the case for a gene therapy trial for severe combined immune deficiency, which caused leukemia in four children.

“There’s a large overhang of anxiety from these cases, but frankly, quietly, gene therapy trials have been successfully running for the last couple of years that have been very, very safe,” Gullans says. “After the Gelsinger trial, people have been very cautious, and there’s a lot of excitement about gene therapy. Right now there are less than 100 people who’ve benefited from it, but I don’t think it’s far in the future at all.”



Charles Q. Choi has written for Scientific American, The New York Times, Wired, Science and Nature, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents, including scaling the side of an iceberg in Antarctica, investigating mummies from Siberia, snorkeling in the Galapagos, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, camping in the Outback, avoiding thieves near Shaolin Temple and hunting for mammoth DNA in Yukon.

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