Stem Cells, Sports Ethics, & Cheating Super-Athletes?

Cheating athletes to turn themselves into Bionic men with stem cells in the future? With their potential to turn into any kind of cell in the body, stem cells hold the potential to revolutionize medicine. And now they also hold the potential to revolutionize cheating in athletic competitions.

A new technology — right at the cutting-edge of tissue re-engineering research and being explored to treat muscular dystrophy or create quicker recovery time from a torn knee ligament — could also be exploited by athletes to enhance their performance.

In the new technology, athletes could use their own stem cells to grow bigger, stronger muscles. And because the stem cells are entirely natural and from an athlete’s own body, they would be virtually undetectable.

In ongoing research, doctors who have taken samples of biceps muscle and inject the stem cells from those samples into injured tissues find that the stem cells repair that tissue faster and better than standard treatment.

This procedure has already been used to repair cardiac tissue, broken bones and torn muscles — at least in lab rats. Early testing in humans has shown that adult stem cell injections can help elderly patients regain bladder control.

But that same technology that can potentially help injured people get well can also be used by athletes to cheat.

That’s at least a theory of Dr. Johnny Huard, one of the leading gene-therapy researchers in the United States and director of the Growth and Development Laboratory at the Children’s Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh.

While specific studies have yet to be conducted yet, Dr. Huard believes that if the stem cells were injected into tissue that didn’t need repair, they would respond by making the healthy tissue “even stronger.”

This could lead to super high-tech cheating: “We’re not talking about taking a bad athlete and making him super,” Dr. Huard says. “We’re talking about taking a super athlete and giving him that fraction-of-a-second edge to get that gold medal.”

Dr. Huard’s theories are supported by research elsewhere.

Dr. Thomas Vangsness, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Southern California, is working on the first clinical study for stem cell biology in orthopedic surgery to use stem cells to repair meniscus tears in the knee. Dr. Vangsness is also team physician for USC athletics.

While the double-blind project is only a year old, Vangsness says his experienced eyes can see things growing. “I personally see things growing,” he said. “But I’m still blinded, so I can’t really tell you for sure.”

But not everyone is certain the science is already there. Dr. David Harris, an immunology professor at the University of Arizona and director of the Cord Blood Registry, one of the country’s largest cord blood banks, doesn’t think that stem cells will strengthen an already-healthy muscle.

“If there’s no stress or damage to the tissue, (stem cells) don’t do anything,” Harris said. “This is not a way to get bigger muscles or hit more home runs. It’s a way for athletes to recover quicker from a potential career-ending injury.”

Science of cheating
But if Dr. Huard is right — and stem cells injected into healthy tissue would make them super strong — this will be just a part of a basket of elective procedures that athletes will undergo in the future to become “bionic.” In their quest for gold, athletes may elect to undergo performance-enhancing procedures much in the same way that a growing number of women today chose from a range of cosmetic procedures.

In the future, athletes may have more options beyond gene doping and stem cells—at least that’s what British bioethicist Dr. Andy Miah believes. Dr. Miah, who authored the book “Genetically Modified Athletes: Biomedical Ethics, Gene Doping and Sport,” believes the time when athletes will have microscopic devices implanted in their brains to boost performance is just a little down the road.

Things like these were clearly science fiction a few decades ago. But today, such technologies are being studied help to people suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science could converge to create a chip that would help an athlete keep in shape, keep his arm or head steady, or elicit other physiological responses during competition, Dr. Miah told Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for

“Some would argue that this opens the door towards creating freak shows,” Dr. Miah said. “Yet if we look carefully at an athlete’s capability in relation to what is normal, we are already there.”

Watchdog mechanism
Dr. Huard’s theories involving adult stem cells have the anti-doping establishment worried.

For one, using stem cells from one’s own body will make the procedure virtually undetectable. And then, there are the questions—is it actually cheating if you’re using something from your own body and just moving it somewhere else?

“In essence, we’re talking about taking part of yourself and injecting it back into you somewhere else. It’s 100 percent naturally you,” says Dr. Huard,. “And if that’s the case, do we call that cheating?”

If that’s cheating, how would the watchdogs be able to detect that?

“I don’t think this is any different than anything we’ve seen in the past,” Travis Tygart, the senior managing director of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency tells

“Whether it’s designer steroids or new pharmaceutical drugs like EPO or human growth hormone, it’s the same sort of idea—that athletes who are going to cheat are going to go to all extremes to do so without getting caught,” he said. “And that’s why it’s so important to have a mechanism in place to get at all those new forms of cheating”

Tygart is referring to the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) itself, the independent anti-doping agency for Olympic sport in the U.S., which has been operating since October 2000.

This is why Tygart is working with doctors, trainers, scientists and researchers such as Dr. Huard — to stay on top and ahead of the cheaters.

“You don’t want these researchers to stop developing these technologies. It would be ridiculous to suggest that,” he said. “You want to have these productive discussions to examine what we can do so these drugs and developments don’t become abused by an athlete seeking an advantage.”

Science gone bad
Like all medical advancements, stem cell therapies are surrounded by concerns over cost and potential side effects.

“There is some concern that a stem cell is like a cancer cell,” Dr. Freddy Fu, who works with Dr. Huard as an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh.

Gene therapy, for instance, has suffered setbacks in the form of deaths. In 2007, Jolee Mohr, a 36-year-old mother from Springfield, Ill., died after getting the second dose of an experimental genetically engineered arthritis therapy. While the exact cause of Mohr’s death is not known, it was the second death in the history of gene-therapy trials. In 1999, 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger, who was participating in a University of Pennsylvania study, died of a massive immune reaction to gene-therapy treatment.

Dr. Tom Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research firm, no amount of stem cells, gene therapy, cloning or any other scientific discovery can create a great athlete.

“So much more goes into it than genes,” says Dr. Murray. “You could clone Michael Jordan and have the world’s greatest accountant,” he scoffs.

But for Murray, who also serves as chairman of the ethics panel for the World Anti-Doping Agency, sports is at a crossroad:

“Either it will become a free-for-all, where it’s less and less about who’s the best athlete and more about who has the best chemist and biomedical guy, or athletes and fans will become disenthralled with all this scientific manipulation and will want to see what human beings are capable of on their own,” Murray said.

“Or we’ll probably continue to muddle somewhere in between.”

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