Gene Therapy That Bulks up Muscles Raises Doping Concerns

By Brett Israel | November 13, 2009 7:30 am

macaque-monkeyA gene therapy treatment intended to reverse muscle weakness appears to restore muscle mass in monkeys, raising hopes that doctors may soon be able to treat this condition in humans with degenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. Scientists injected a gene into the monkeys’ thighs that causes cells to produce human follistatin, which interferes with another compound called myostatin. Myostatin breaks down muscle, so in theory adding follistatin should encourage muscles to grow [Reuters].

And grow they did. Within three months the monkeys’ thigh muscle mass increased, and the effect lasted for 15 months, according to the research published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. (Not quite the same effect as the whippet turned hugely muscular by a natural genetic defect.) The relatively long-lasting effect is promising for researchers looking to treat lifelong conditions such as multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. The researchers say the treatment was safe and that no other organs were affected.

But there could be a downside to this promising work–some experts are asking whether this therapeutic technique could be used by unscrupulous athletes looking to tweak their genetics and to build stronger muscles. The drugs companies Amgen and Wyeth have already begun testing myostatin inhibitors in humans and such studies have already prompted fears about the potential for myostatin inhibitors to be abused by athletes hoping to gain the competitive edge. If gene therapy can achieve similar outcomes in humans, such modifications will be even harder to detect [New Scientist]. The World Anti-Doping Authority has banned gene doping in athletic competitions for obvious reasons, even though there’s no evidence that any athletes are tinkering with their genes.

Of course there wouldn’t be: If some jock were gene doping, there would be no way to detect it.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons / Muhammad Mahdi Karim

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Matt

    It would be a tragedy if overwrought concerns about theoretical (non-health threatening) misuse would inhibit the development of treatments that would clearly be beneficial to a lot of people in need.

  • Jumblepudding

    I’m an adult male who has body image issues from a childhood of exposure to bulked up superheroes and steroid-loaded b-movie actors. sign me up for a myostatin inhibitor. I call it athleticism reassignment therapy.

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s crazy bordering on criminal to start worrying about something that could help people with some very nasty diseases just because it might be abused by consenting adults being paid outrageous amounts of money to play games.

    Aside from which, at least one article suggested that such gene therapy would be very easy to detect because the levels of the protein that inhibits myostatin would be far higher than is normal. See the last paragraph of this article:

    I say break all sports into two separate leagues, one that attempts to ban all forms of doping (like most current sports) and another where anything goes. I’m quite sure the second would be far more popular as existing records are broken left and right.

  • Zachary

    They already did that Anon, the former is semi-pro and the latter is pro.

  • Nick

    I think we need dual categories for every sport: regular human and enhanced human.

    Cuz I guarantee you the original Olympians did whatever they could to get ahead.

  • Rahsaan

    LMAO at Zach and Jumblepudding’s witty comments. Seriously though, we should not let fear of probably abuse completely supersede all the healing this treatment would offer.

  • rabidmob

    Sign me up for performance enhancements please.

  • Drew

    Most of us were not born like Lou Ferigno. So if it is safe why not level the playing field between those genetically gifted and the rest.

  • Angie

    This sounds like a good cure for those affected by muscle dystrophy. So why not help those, who are ill without worrying about certain people´s ego-states? Adults make their own decisions after all. Those, who want to consume drugs (also beauty drugs, such as “diet pills” and steroids) will do so, with or without new inventions and certainly without considering the consequences for their health.

  • Mark

    Hello to all :) I cannott understand how to add your site in my rss reader, wonder how this works..

  • http://- Phil Doran

    At eighty (and female) I’m finding the heavy work in the garden is getting heavier.
    I can’t heave bird seed sacks around as well as I usd to, either.
    Where can I get this stuff?


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