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

South African Oscar Pistorius became the first athlete to run on two artificial legs in the 2012 London Olympics. The double amputee is competing this week in the 400-meter race.

The contentious qualification of the runner’s carbon-fiber leg prostheses and the rapid advances in biotechnology brings up a curious question: Might we also see genetically enhanced Olympians in the future?

Science is increasingly finding that world-class athletes often naturally carry what might be performance-enhancing genes.

Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta had a mutation in the gene EPOR that apparently caused him to generate extra red blood cells, boosting his oxygen-carrying capacity by 25-50 percent and potentially helping him earn seven Olympic cross-country skiing medals. In addition, nearly every male Olympic sprinter and power athlete ever analyzed carries the 577R allele, a variant of the gene ACTN3. About half of Eurasians and 85 percent of Africans carry at least one copy of this variant, while a billion or so people worldwide do not.

“If genes do confer a unique and special advantage to a very few, is everyone competing on a level playing field?” asks Juan Enriquez, co-managing director at venture capital firm Excel Venture Management in Boston and co-author of “Homo Evolutis: Please Meet the Next Human Species.”

Although Olympians undoubtedly earn their titles with an extraordinary amount of effort and support, Olympic officials may have to wrestle with the implications of this uneven genetic landscape, say Enriquez and his colleague Steve Gullans, a molecular biologist and co-managing director of Excel Venture Management, in the July 19 issue of the journal Nature.

“Should your Olympic dreams be for naught because you picked the wrong parents?” Enriquez wonders.

Add for strength, add for endurance

To level the playing field, Enriquez and Gullans suggest athletes may want to upgrade their bodies with gene therapy.

A few genetic variants have already been identified that could up a competitor’s game. In 2004, a German toddler described in the New England Journal of Medicine made news for possessing a mutation that disabled the protein myostatin, making him extraordinarily muscular. And carriers of the ‘I’ variant of the gene ACE are more likely than non-carriers to successfully climb a 26,000-foot peak. This variant is present in 94 percent of Sherpas in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, but in just 45- 70 percent of people of other ethnicities. A study of British runners found it was most prevalent in those who raced the longest distances.

Although genetically modified Olympians might seem far-fetched, Enriquez and Gullans noted South African runner Pistorius’s case. He was born with fibula bones between his knees and ankles due to a birth defect and had to have his legs cut off below the knee when he was a baby. He will be the first double amputee to run in the Olympics with the aid of carbon-fiber artificial limbs made by Icelandic orthopedic company Ossur.

Unfair advantage?

Disabled athletes have competed in the Olympics before. In 1904, George Eyser won three gold medals in gymnastics while competing with a wooden leg.

Scientists continue to debate whether Pistorius’s prosthetics give him a leg up over athletes with flesh-and-blood limbs — indeed, he was initially banned from competing in the 2008 Olympics but was later cleared to race.

Olympic governing bodies have accepted scientific and technological advances in the past—training in low-oxygen rooms known as hypoxic chambers, for example, is allowed to help improve endurance.

But not every breakthrough is embraced. High-tech swimsuits often credited with helping athletes in the 2008 Beijing Olympics break 25 world records in swimming is now limited, and around 150 scientists will test the blood and urine of thousands of Olympians this year for dozens of banned performance-enhancing drugs.

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.”


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