Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Dry Observer

Gods and Monsters -- Human Augmentation for Athletes, Legal or Otherwise...

Human augmentation has the promise of improving human mental and physical abilities in almost every way by changing our biochemistry, our methods of learning, our neurology, even (perhaps especially) our genes. Ironically, while increasing human intelligence and creative/technical gifts would have a dramatic impact on human civilization, much of the furor surrounding this field's potential results from its demonstrated ability to modify athletes.

This article from Deutch Welle describes suspicions that a German coach has been involved in the "genetic doping" of athletes, defined by the World Anti-Doping Agency as "the non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or of the modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to improve athletic performance." The article reports:
E-mails sent and received by Springstein, a one-time coach of the German Athletics Association (DLV), which were seized by the police during a raid on Springstein's home, brought up references to Repoxygen -- a banned substance meant to be used in gene therapy to treat patients with anemia.

"Repoxygen helps to induce a controlled release of erythropoietin (EPO), a substance that stimulates the production of red blood cells, thereby increasing the amount of oxygen the blood can deliver to the muscles.

"In one email, Springstein wrote that 'new Repoxygen is hard to get. Please give me new instructions soon so that I can order the product before Christmas.'"

The World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Olympic Committee have already banned synthetic EPO among athletes, but Repoxygen stimulates cells to produce EPO "naturally." Experts are surprised that genetic doping has become a factor prior to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Some experts actually suspected that genetic augmentation might have been a factor in even the 2004 Olympic Games (as noted here).

An article in The Scientist also discusses these issues, also noting some concerns from members of the World Anti-Doping Agency:

"Olivier Rabin, the agency's science director, said athletes are most likely to use gene technologies that offer them the same kind of benefits as banned drugs. 'Boosting of oxygen transfer and muscle mass building are definitely two of the key areas of gene doping, as indicated by the abuse of pharmaceutical drugs by some athletes for those purposes today,' Rabin said.

"Geoffrey Goldspink from University College London is one researcher whose work on gene therapy for muscle mass has already brought him unwanted attention from the sporting world. He and his colleagues are developing a treatment for muscle wasting diseases that involves transferring the gene for mechano growth factor, using a plasmid vector. In mouse studies, the gene triggered a 30% increase in muscle mass within weeks, suggesting the treatment could be more potent than anabolic steroids.

"Goldspink said he is frequently contacted by people from what he calls the 'sports counter-culture,' who want him to supply them with his technology. He forwards such Emails to WADA, but acknowledges it wouldn't be impossible for a lab elsewhere to produce it themselves. 'It's not rocket science to make genes,' he said. 'Many graduates in biochemistry can make them if they're experienced enough.'"

The article notes that WADA scientists are trying to develop ways of detecting gene doping, "including mass spectroscopy approaches that can distinguish between endogenous and introduced growth factors, tomographic detection of mRNA being formed in unusual tissues after gene transfer, and microarray searches for alterations in the expression profile of certain genes."

Opinions differ, however, as to whether or not genetic augmentation is necessarily a bad thing, as noted in this article from Betterhumans.Com:

"Miah, the author of Genetically Modified Athletes, says that the IOC can't treat genetic modification as it does other forms of doping. 'It's not sufficient simply to prohibit this technology in sport,' says Miah, 'and hope that will be the end of the issue.' Given the threat of black market labs and the lack of a valid method of detection, Miah says that prohibition isn't the best option. 'Increasingly, genetic modification will be seen as a valuable aspect of our society,' says Miah, 'promoting health and benefiting humanity.'

"Miah points out that genetic modification is just one more tool at athletes' disposal, no different than an altitude chamber that increases the concentration of their red blood cells to improve their endurance. He says the criteria for distinguishing between fair and unfair technologies haven't been addressed by international sport bodies since the beginning of the anti-doping movement 40 years ago.

"Some argue that genetic manipulation undermines the anti-doping position that doping creates an inequality amongst competitors. There are natural variations in genes among people and allowing athletes access to gene therapy could actually level the inherently uneven playing field. This argument, however, rests on there being equal access to gene therapy."

And equal access, of course, cuts to the heart of most human enhancement issues. If we can make people "better than well," if we can make them effectively superhuman in one or many attributes (such as endurance, memory, strength, overall health or basic intelligence), what happens to the gap between rich and poor if only a small sliver of a society can afford the augmentations?

As Joel Garreau, author of Radical Evolution, notes in this WorldChanging interview:

Garreau: "Well I have a scenario on that. Take any enhancement technology. I'm think of the ones that exist, like Modafinil, trade name Provigil. This is the primitive prescription drug that allows you to stay awake without any of the side effects of speed or caffeine like jitter or paranoia. You always see the same path. The drug is originally aimed at the sick. In this case it was aimed at the narcoleptics who fall asleep uncontrollably. But within the blink of an eye it moves on to group two, which is the needy well; in this case it was instantly tested on Army helicopter pilots who were young and healthy. The Army discovered that these helicopter pilots could function splendidly for 40 hours without sleep and then have 8 hours of sleep and then do it again for another 40 hours.

"And that's just the first iteration of this. The stuff that's in the pipeline is much more impressive in its effects. But the third group to be attracted to enhancements like this is where people start getting creeped out. And that's the merely ambitious, the people who want to stay awake either in the immortal words of Kiss, to "rock and roll all night and party every day," or they're just ambitious because they want to make partner in a law firm and they want to outperform their peers. And so they lunge at any enhancement that you can offer. Viagra was originally created for some other therapeutic reason but of course its big market has been the ambitious, if you will.

"I think we're going to see that path with any enhancement and I think what freaks people out is the idea that it's going to be used by people who simply want to have advantage over their competitors. If you buy that path, then you're looking in the very near term at a potential division of the species between the Enhanced, the Naturals, and the Rest. The Enhanced are the people who have the interest and the money to embrace all of these enhancements. The Naturals are the ones who could do it if they wanted to, but they're like today's vegetarians or today's fundamentalists, and they eschew these enhancements for either aesthetic or political or religious reasons. The third group is the Rest and either for reasons of geography or money, they don't have access to these enhancements and they hate and envy the people who do. That division could get pretty exciting pretty fast in terms of conflict."

James Hughes, author of Citizen Cyborg, offers this alternative path in the same interview:

Hughes: "My answer to that complaint is that literacy is in the same boat. When you teach people to read are you making the illiterate less well off? Yes, in fact, in a generally literate society employers will generally want to hire literate people. But we don't then argue that we shouldn't teach people to read because we're making the illiterates worse off. We argue that we should teach everyone to read. So if there is a substantial population of Amish in the future who feel disenfranchised because they've decided not to take the cognitive enhancement drugs, and aren't able to work at what's considered the then normative level of work productivity and cognitive performance, I don't really think that the answer is to have a regulatory approach. I'm not suggesting that that's Joel's answer, but that is a lot of people's answer.

"I also don't think that there's any useful distinction between therapy and enhancement although many people will persist in making it. My favorite example is that anti-aging medicine will stop an awful lot of diseases. I don't see how you can distinguish in that case between saying well this is also a prophylactic against cancer, and saying that it will extend my life a couple tens of decades. In terms of the psychopharmaceuticals I'm generally in favor of deregulation. As I said I think that there are gonna be some psychopharmaceuticals and neuro-nano technologies which will have very profound dangers attached to them, much more dangerous than heroin and cocaine are today. But we see with the Drug War today the tremendous social costs associated with restricting people's cognitive liberty.

"My final point about this is that the real distinction in the future will be between what we have 'in the Plan,' that is what we have as a matter of universal access, and what we have in the market. Already we have 'enhancements' covered by Medicaid or Medicare or by private health insurance, like breast reconstruction after cancer or Viagra, and so we just stretch our boundaries of what we consider to be therapeutic to include these cosmetic or life enhancements. At the same time, over in the marketplace, we have things like aspirin and Band-Aids which are indisputably therapeutic but we've decided that there's no useful reason why they need to be 'in the Plan.' So I think that's the kind of decision that we're gonna have to make in the future. If there are drugs or treatments or devices which threaten to radically exacerbate inequality in society that is the point at which you say everybody needs access to this through some kind of universal access system - put them in the plan and give them to everybody. But if the enhancements don't threaten those kinds of inequalities, then we can have a debate about whether they belong in the market or not."

I happen to think a well-informed public discussion of these issues would serve everyone's best interests. I also think we should remember this discussion is not happening in a vacuum -- whatever the United States or the European Union may decide to do, India, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, Russia and many other advanced nations will have to decide how they will deal with this issue. Will they decide to dramatically augment their entire populations? Just the scientists? Just a chosen elite? Or will they forego the technology altogether?


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