Gene therapy in sport

Competitiveness is ingrained in human society. Humans have a will to be better than their peers. This is true in all spheres of life, particularly in the sporting arena. But, what creates sporting excellence? Practice? Coaching? Discipline? Or is it solely based on an athlete’s genetic makeup?

Humans have been disadvantaged due to their genes since the beginning of time. In the past people have had to deal with genetic inequality as a fact of life. Times are changing and they are changing at a rapid rate. New gene therapy technology, such as CRISPR, is giving humans the option to alter their genetic makeup. Questions surrounding the technology are being answered rather quickly however, questions surrounding the ethical dilemma behind the technology have remained, somewhat, unanswered.

The number of opinions based on the nitty gritty of gene therapy is probably similar to the number of people on this planet- most people struggle to completely agree on all dimensions of gene therapy. One aspect that most people can agree on is that it is ‘okay’ to use gene therapy for treating/ curing human genetic disorders. The contentious side to gene therapy is whether or not it should be used to alter genetic traits.

The seemingly black and white issue of gene therapy becomes all too ‘grey’ when defining which genetic disorders should be ‘cured’ using gene therapy. If pain and suffering from a condition such as Parkinson’s can be cured then by all means it should be. But who defines pain and suffering? Just imagine that a child is being bullied for being below the average height compared to the rest of his classmates, is altering that child’s physical appearance (ie height) by using gene therapy a bad thing? To that particular child he/ she is in a state of pain and suffering, albeit emotional and psychological. It is in cases like this that the line in the sand becomes particularly difficult to draw.

Back to the sporting aspect, many world class athletes share genetic traits with their respective peers. Is this purely coincidence? Most certainly not. As performance requirements become stricter, only the athletes with the necessary physical structure make the grade at the elite level. A study which measured the arm length of professional Croatian water polo players from 1980 to 1989 found that the arm lengths had increased year on year at five times the rate compared to the general Croatian population (Epstein, 2014). A similar study which looked at the arm proportions of elite weight lifters found that they have increasingly shorter arms- particularly forearms- relative to their height giving them substantial mechanical advantage when heaving heavy weights overhead (Epstein, 2014).

This phenomenon shows that genetic traits have a huge role to play in high level competitive sports. So, the question that must be asked, is it acceptable to use gene therapy to improve sporting performance or at least even the playing field? For example 100m sprinters generally have shorter legs relative to their total body height. Again, this illustrates that genes have a marked influence on performance. Should promising athletes with longer legs be allowed to undergo gene therapy to restrict leg length in order to maximise performance? Currently, the simple answer is, no. According to The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), athletes are prohibited from “nontherapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to enhance performance” (World Anti-Doping Agency, 2017). Some people, such as Julian Savalescu, believe that gene doping is purely in line with the essence of sports; attempting to get maximum performance out of an athlete (Skipper, 2004).

While gene therapy is currently illegal in the sporting arena it is definitely a field of progressive research and a field which should be carefully monitored and cautiously considered with respect to maintaining integrity in sports.

 

 

 

 

References

Epstein, D. (2014). The Sports Gene. New York: Turtleback Books.

Skipper, M. (2004). In the News: Gene doping: a new threat for the Olympics?. Nature Reviews Genetics5(10), 720-720. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nrg1461

World Anti-Doping Agency. (2017). World Anti-Doping Agency. Retrieved 19 June 2017, from https://www.wada-ama.org/

 

 

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