Genetic tests for doping are coming to France

Having the 2024 Olympics in Paris has fast-tracked the arrival of genetic testing for doping in France.

Image: Braňo/Unsplash

Since the risk of genetic doping was first discussed by scientists and sporting bodies in 2001, authorities have been playing catch-up with this latest, sophisticated method of illicit performance-enhancement.

No athlete has ever tested positive for gene doping, which either means it doesn’t exist or just that no-one has ever been caught doing it. Either way, led by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and backed by French anti-doping authorities and politicians, genetic testing for doping is coming to France, which also means it could be coming to the Tour de France.

As with pharmacological doping, the prospect of gene doping grew off the back of legitimate scientific research on gene therapies to treat disease and medical conditions. In 2004, ‘marathon mice’ were created in a laboratory; animals with much greater endurance abilities than normal mice. Researchers achieved this by altering the expression of certain genes that increased the ability of insulin receptors to help more blood sugar enter the mice’s cells. The research was originally focused on fat-burning and obesity; the effect on muscle fibres was “not on our radar screen,” according to one of the study authors.

In another experiment, increased levels of naturally occurring EPO could be produced by inserting another EPO gene, potentially a benefit for patients suffering anaemia from chronic or acute causes (e.g. cancer treatments). As gene therapy technology has advanced and people’s genes have been modified to treat or cure diseases, the opportunity to potentially alter athletes’ genes in search of better performance has also grown. Each time a paper was published with new findings in the early 2000s, athletes and coaches lined up requesting to use the treatments themselves.

In 2003, WADA added gene doping to its banned list and began funding research into possible detection methods. As the years passed the search for a test crept closer. The Rio 2016 Olympic Games came too soon for WADA to approve new detection methods but by the time Tokyo 2020 2021 arrived athletes were tested for EPO gene doping for the first time. Genetic testing for doping is doubly useful as it can uncover both regular pharmacological doping as well as actual genetic doping.

Now, with less than 18 months until the start of the next Olympics, French officials are well on their way to getting everything in order for the Paris Games, including passing legislation needed for the running of the Olympics. This includes ramping up security measures and ensuring that citizens who have to work Sundays during the Games either do so on a voluntary basis or with double pay (now there’s an idea).

More interestingly, legislation has been passed to allow the French Anti-Doping Laboratory (AFLD) to carry out genetic testing for doping in order to comply with international anti-doping standards. As test capabilities have increased, this means that sample substitution, transfusions, and gene doping can now all be detected.

Two types of testing will be made available, one more advanced and intrusive than the other, and crucially, there will be no experimental phase as part of the roll-out. It’s understood these tests will be in place for the Olympic Games next year and then be available for French sporting competitions thereafter, meaning genetic testing for doping could potentially be coming to French bike racing and, most pertinently, the Tour.

Initially, as reported by Le Monde, the French Government’s proposal wanted to distinguish between testing samples for “genetic fingerprints” that indicate sample substitution or blood transfusions had occurred, and the more hardcore test which would examine genetic characteristics to detect intentional genetic mutations and the use of genetic doping techniques.

While the first type of test was the only one intended to be made permanent beyond the Olympic Games in French legislation, the second method has now been fast-tracked to also be used at the Games. This moves it up from the original experimental phase that was meant to last until June 2025 when parliament would then vote on its passage into anti-doping legislation.

The Olympic road race winner may be the first to be genetically tested on the Champs-Élysées, but likely won’t be the last.

This legislation effectively transposes the WADA code for gene doping detection into French law and provides the LADF with new powers, which some politicians believe have come together too quickly. You are going way too fast,” said Jérémie Iordanoff of the Europe Ecologie-Les Verts party. “Bioethics is all the same a somewhat serious subject.” Ugo Bernalicis of the La France Insoumise party added that the Olympic Games are being used to “roll back fundamental freedoms”. These concerns relate to privacy rights – people’s DNA and DNA sequencing would be stored by these organisations – and the fact that, as a developing technology and area of science, the ethics in this space are still being worked out too.

While cyclists may undergo genetic testing for the first time in the 2024 summer, it also presents the opportunity for genetic testing to be introduced at the Tour de France, in 2025 at the earliest. Additionally, samples collected will have the chance of being genetically tested again at a later date, when new technology is developed and previously unknown methods of doping could be detected.

When we contacted ASO, organisers of the Tour, they referred us to the UCI, which is responsible for anti-doping procedures at all of its races. We then contacted the UCI to try and find out whether it had already started making provisions to introduce genetic testing for doping at competitions in France, and whether the 2025 Tour de France could be the first French Grand Tour that incorporated these tests in its anti-doping procedures. The UCI did not respond.

Meanwhile, WADA has requested new applications for the development of fresh methods of detection. Again, there’s no evidence yet to show any athlete has taken part in gene doping.

Whether authorities are jumping at shadows when it comes to genetic doping, or if we are entering a new era in anti-doping by targeting a real threat, we’re sure to find out sooner rather than later. Either way, genetic testing for doping is surely a significant upgrade in the fight for clean sport.

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