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Science Policy Compass Blog of the Month

No more heroes...? The sport and gene-editing debate

December 11th 2017

For many of us, sport plays a pivotal role in our lives. We participate as best we can and enthusiastically follow the performances and achievements of sport’s greatest exponents. As a child I viewed the top footballers, athletes and tennis players as heroes and tried to emulate them. As an adult, the hero-worship receded (somewhat!) and became more of an admiration of the power, artistry and team-work – a deep appreciation of their ability (relative to mine) together with a gradual acceptance that no matter how hard I try I won’t reach their level of excellence. The importance of this to me means I am more than comfortable that society claims a defiant abhorrence of sport cheats - especially with respect to performance-enhancing drugs - and social media explosions of contempt occur every time a former hero is considered a fraud (e.g. Lance Armstrong, Diego Maradona, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, Tyson Gay, Maria Sharapova, to name but a few). Despite each outcry, I guess I’m not alone in thinking there could be a lot more offenders than reach the back pages, but clear my mind of this possibility to fully enjoy the next match/meet/event.

Even whole countries have been implicated in sport-related drug-scandals and now Russia is banned from taking part in drug testing activities in next year’s football World Cup (to be held in Russia) and perhaps more significantly banned entirely from competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. This following from previous accusations by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) of widespread state-sponsored drug cheating in Russian athletics.

If drug-taking isn’t difficult enough to prevent, WADA now face a new challenge – increasingly achievable gene editing with CRISPR technology. The emergence of CRISPR-Cas9 has pushed the century old bioethical themes of eugenics back into the headlines, and like many other regulatory authorities and governing bodies, WADA has reacted with something of a moratorium approach – a blanket holding position – until it can work out what all this means and what a better (bioethical) solution might be.

Bioethics specialists have foreseen the threat of ‘gene-doping’ for some time (see 2003 Nature article Ethics Watch - an Olympic tail) and now CRISPR technology has been added to the new list of WADA no-go areas with a revamped version of a policy statement dating back to 2007 (see Is science killing sport? Gene therapy and its possible abuse in doping ). WADA’s new policy forbids "gene editing agents designed to alter genome sequences and/or the transcriptional or epigenetic regulation of gene expression" i.e. CRISPR and its future variants. In 2007 and again now, WADA is vague when asked about its rules for monitoring and detecting out-of-bounds genetic mutation (see Anti-doping agency to ban all gene editing in sport from 2018). After all, subtle ‘natural’ genetic mutation may already contribute to what makes an athlete a champion anyway. It’s already been proposed that extension of WADAs Athlete Biological Passport may be one useful approach to detect any possible consented, advantageous, somatic gene-edited changes to muscle, tendon or bone, but the success of that remains to be seen.

For the last part of this blog, I beg the more informed molecular scientists among you to relax your view about what might or might not be soon scientifically achievable - after all it should be every scientist’s responsibility to imagine even wild and chaotic future scenarios so as to help direct us towards a more acceptable one!  Although currently subject to a wide moratorium, imagine human germline editing gradually starting to feature in first world society, with the DNA of our future generations potentially subject to the deliberate whim of this (or more probably the next) generations parents. This means that children could begin to be born with unconsented human induced changes to their DNA.  Imagine if these changes contributed to super-athletic abilities. Would this innocent be allowed to compete (and probably win) at the highest level? Would they be considered a freak and a cheat because some of their talent was created by man, rather than blessed with mutations that are ‘God-given’?  Would a separate games need to be invented to accommodate them – and if so, would we still see the best of them as heroes?