This paper is a critical examination of how athletic performance is affected through the use of gene therapy. The use of gene therapy is often done in order to cure or to aid in easing the symptoms of genetic defects such as muscular dystrophy, but some researchers are beginning to realize the potential of gene therapy in enhancing athletic performance. The basic concept is that gene therapy can be used to provide changes in muscular composition, which will either make muscle more dense (for strength) or will allow the muscles to fire more quickly (for speed). This paper will address the available theories on this particular form of gene therapy in order to assess the potential effects of gene therapy when used in such a manner.
The reason that gene therapy is considered to have significant implications in the field of athletics is that all athletic abilities are based in some form or another on the properties of muscles and the basic muscular structure of the athlete. (Verma & Somia: 1997) Muscle structure can be generally defined within two specific groups: Smooth muscles and striated muscles. Smooth muscles run the length of the physical structure and are designed for speed. Striated muscles run crossways over the structure and provide strength. Depending on the particular sport, smooth or striated muscles are developed and enhanced through practice and proper diet.
The muscle fibers on an athlete undergo a serious degree of change during periods of intense physical training. An athlete who uses a high- protein and high- fiber diet will experience immediate weight loss and muscle build if they are involved in a strength- training program. This type of program is seen as successful in literally tearing the existing fibers of the striated muscle groups. When the body recovers, in order to keep from suffering additional injury, these muscles heal in such a manner that they can support more weight in the future. A weight training program is therefore constant abuse on the striated muscles.
Similarly, athletes that wish for speed, rather than strength, require the development of the smooth muscle groups. These smooth muscles are developed though a straining process, where the constant repetition of actions – such as swimming or running – serve to strain the smooth muscles along the axis. This results in a demand on the muscles that calls for constant rapid movements. Over time and through practice, the body is able to provide more speed to the developing smooth muscles.
However, gene therapy in sports is gaining controversy in sporting committees, as the effects of muscle development and gene therapy indicate that there is serious potential for using gene therapy in sports. The current state of gene therapy is fairly primitive: The most general presentation is that cultured cells from one individual are injected into a target area on a different individual. (Ondrusek: 1993) The cells of the recipient are receptive to the injection and the existing cells tend to assimilate the traits found in the new cells.
Gene therapy in sports, therefore, might have serious implications. As of this date, no hormone supplements (such as steroids) are allowed for use in sporting events such as the Olympics. However, there are no regulations concerning gene therapy as a means of hormone supplementation. This means that cells from an individual who does take these hormones can be injected into the body of the Olympic athlete, and that athlete would legally be able to compete as they had not ingested or injected pure hormones. In addition, the results of delivering the same person’s cells back into their bodies is considered to be more beneficial than injecting the cells of a stranger: It is plausible that cells from an athlete can be removed and cultured, then inserted back into the body of that same person. One source noted: "You could take growth hormone or erythropoietin (EPO) from [a person's] cells and deliver it to the same person. Whether this is going on now, I don't know, but it is perfectly possible." (Maltin: 2000) The results of this gene therapy would be that the individual would gain all of the physical benefits from hormone use without illegally taking the hormones. (Gorman: 1998)
Gene therapy is therefore believed to be little more than the use of a modern hormone, and is seen to be controversial. Proponents of the use of gene therapy suggest that there is no reason for this process to not take place, as the athlete is merely receiving a supplement of human muscles. In addition, if the muscle group that is used is originally taken from the body of that same athlete, this seems to suggest that there is no grounds for dispute. After all, since some runners get a blood transfusion of their own blood immediately before a marathon, why should not a similar technique apply in the use of gene therapy? (Verma & Somia: 1997)
Opponents to gene therapy, however, argue that this is simply another way to get illegal hormones into the athlete. Hormones, such as steroids, often increase the performance of the athlete through artificially building the tissues of the striated fibers. In addition, steroids are cumulative, where the drug will increase performance if an athlete accepts the hormone before or during a workout. If this is the case with all hormones, isn’t gene therapy just a loophole in the laws of accepting hormones for performance enhancement? (Walters: 1991)
Currently, the use of gene therapy in athletics is not regulated. This is mainly believed to be the case through a lack of comprehensive legislation, and gene therapy will no doubt eventually be ceased in order to prevent a form of illegal hormone intake for competition athletes. However, at this time there are no means of detecting the presence of gene therapy in athletes, and unless this changes it is unknown how the athletes using gene therapy will be picked from the crowd.
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