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Is it Cheating if Everyone Does it?

A company called BioViva is getting calls from athletes, trainers, and coaches looking to use one of its gene therapies, says New Scientist. The company claims the experimental therapy blocks the breakdown of muscle tissue, which would be useful for athletes looking for more efficient ways to build muscle or keep their muscles from breaking down. And even though there's no clear evidence yet that the therapy does what it's supposed to do, the athletes keep calling.

There haven't been any confirmed cases of what's being called "gene doping" as of yet, New Scientist says. But anti-doping agencies are already gearing up to test for genetic manipulations. Even the International Olympic Committee says it's going to test for gene doping in Rio.  

The problem is that not all kinds of gene doping can be detected. Conventional gene therapy can be detected if people are tested for gene sequences that differ from their own, according to New Scientist. But what about gene therapies that can't be detected in blood?

Or what if athletes someday manage to find ways to use CRISPR to change enough of a DNA sequence to give themselves a boost?  "Epigenome editing could be even more useful for treating diseases than genome editing. And if epigenome editing takes off in medicine, you can bet that epigenome doping will take off in sport too," New Scientist says.

The solution may be to legalize these forms of doping, rather than banning them, the article suggests. In the case of gene doping, some forms of it may make athletes healthier rather than harming them. In fact, the magazine adds, it may actually be unethical to ban athletes from using methods that could help them stay in better shape.

As far as fairness in competition goes, there are already 200 gene variants that have been identified as being linked to sports performance, New Scientist argues, so some athletes already have an innate — some would say unfair — advantage over others.

"Like it or not, gene doping and epigenome doping are coming," New Scientist says. "Sporting authorities can't stop them, whatever they claim. It will be far better for everyone if we embrace them instead."