Prof Lee Sweeney of the University of Pennsylvania will be behind the introduction of a gene therapy approach to treat aged dogs who suffer muscular weakness. Apparently elderly dogs who become progressively weaker (this is generally called old age) need treatments so their owners can take the canines on walks. The therapy involves the injection of a genetically modified myostatin inhibitor that produces incredible muscular hypertrophy; the injection goes into the animal's liver.
Once this gene therapy reaches the public, h ow long will it be before an existing sports record becomes totally obliterated by newly enhanced and genetically modified athletes?
This raises several issues just in the vet use of the technique:
- Isn't aging natural? Do elderly dogs -- as lovable as they are -- really need to be revitalized so the owners can walk them? At what cost?
- Might counseling on the normal aging in biology be more effective? Aging is part of every organism. Why fight the changes that are inherent in the DNA of the animal, to protect the fragile emotional status of the owner?
Prof Lee Sweeney, from the University of Pennsylvania, has pioneered research into gene transfer technology, a field in which poorly functioning and abnormal genes are manipulated, switched off or replaced.
Ten years ago he created "mighty mice" in the lab with enormous muscles and strength in old age. Now he says experiments on dogs have been so successful that he is preparing to market the treatments to owners of ageing pets across the United States.
He said: "We are now in the final stages of getting all the approvals to offer this through the veterinary hospital as a treatment to try to improve strength in pet dogs.
"As the dogs get weak their owners get upset that they can't walk around any more. So we're hoping that within the next year we will begin the era of genetic enhancement in dogs."
Under the therapy, dogs would be given an injection into the liver of an inhibitor which switches off the gene which produces myostatin, a protein which inhibits muscle growth in animals and humans.
One would hope Sweeney has considered the implications of his genetic enhancement. The first issue is the economic issue of enhancing an aging dog to mollify the owner. Obviously an aging animal in the wild gets eaten, which is not a good outcome for a domestic pet. Domestic pets decline gradually, with the resultant dysfunction experienced by all aging organisms; pet owners keep the animals comfortable until the inevitable sad day when the pet can longer function well. But does this justify an attempt to allay the aging process in a canine? At what price?
Sweeney must consider that if the gene therapy is marketed to vets, that soon, genetically enhanced greyhounds will be winning the dog races. Once the Schwarzenegger greyhounds win races, human athletes will take notice; actually they already have. To the Telegraph again:
He (Dr. Sweeney) gets between five and 10 emails a week from athletes, some from Britain, and so many phone calls that his secretary has stopped putting them through. And that is in a quiet week.
If he publishes an academic paper or does a media interview, a flurry of 50 or more calls and emails usually follows, as it did 10 years ago when he first revealed his 'mighty mice' to the world at a meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology – laboratory mice with enormous muscles that retained their strength and regenerative ability even when the animals reached old age.
Sweeney's super-strong rodents were the product of his pioneering research into gene transfer technology and the implications were clearly not lost on the athletes and coaches who got in touch, one of whom offered $100,000 for what the mice were getting.
Shockingly, Sweeney also received a request from a high school American football coach for his entire team to be genetically modified.
Sweeney told him what he is still telling everyone a decade later, that bulking up on gene therapy is not yet safe enough for humans and would require heavy-duty immune suppression. He always gets the same response.
"Even if I explain to them that to make it work might require all sorts of heroic measures, they basically say, 'Fine. I'll do it'. And if it's a matter of money, they'll get the money."
"Some of them are from Europe," he says. "I get quite a few from the UK and Germany."
He says he would feel uneasy about passing on their names to the anti-doping authorities but is sufficiently concerned to have accepted a seat on the gene-doping panel of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), who are funding eight research projects on gene-doping detection in a desperate attempt to stay ahead of the cheats.
Sweeney is bracing himself for another surge of calls and emails next year when his work moves from the laboratory to the commercial world with a muscle-building gene therapy for dogs.
Even though Sweeney knows the illicit demand for the mystatin inhibitor, he will market the drug anyway...ah the power of economic windfalls can outstrip the ethical considerations of the enhancements.
We have a chapter on genetic enhanced performance (GEP) or Performance Enhancing Genetics (PEGs) that looks at the issues. Sweeney has considered the issues too as summed up by the Telegraph:
Sweeney hopes his new canine anti-aging treatment will be just the start. Humans have the same gene that Sweeney is manipulating in dogs and the nex step will be to treat people with serious genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy. Ultimately, he hopes to give the elderly, like the pampered pooches of Pennsylvania, greater muscle strength and mobility in their final years.
But any breakthrough will inevitably be seized upon by dope cheats in the same way that clinical drugs such as steroids, human growth hormone and the red blood cell-boosting EPO soon found their way into kit bags. With the prospect of as yet undetectable, lifelong enhancement, how could any drug cheat resist?
As gene transfer technology enters the medical mainstream as a treatment for numerous diseases from blindness to cancer, scientists are agreed it is only a matter of time before it crosses over into sport.
Some predict that London 2012 could be the first genetically modified Olympic Games. Others say the Beijing Games may already have that dubious honour.
Here is a therapeutic enhancement that may render all PEDs obsolete. The results are shockingly dramatically impressive; the technology undetectable at present; and the technique will soon be available.
Performance Enhancing Drugs are simply amateurs when compared to the potential power of Performance Enhancing Genetics. Looks like that brave new world of astonishing sports feats will be ushered in very very soon.