Testosterone gene could offer men competitive edge in sports: study

Last Updated: Friday, May 30, 2008 | 11:34 AM ET

In a recent Swedish study, seventeen men passed standard urine tests because the tests  failed to detect the presence of testosterone in their system.
In a recent Swedish study, seventeen men passed standard urine tests because the tests failed to detect the presence of testosterone in their system. (CBC)

A new discovery shows that the way men process testosterone could potentially help them cheat in sports competitions.

Theoretically, according to a recent study, they can inject themselves with testosterone to give them a competitive edge — and it won’t show up on a urine test.

A recent study of 55 men in Sweden who were injected with testosterone shows disparities in how men process the hormone. Seventeen of the men passed standard urine tests because the tests failed to detect the testosterone’s presence.

Researchers say those men are missing both copies of a gene that helps testosterone dissolve in urine.

“I think it points out the limitations of the current approach to testing and it will compel us to refine our testing strategies in the future,” Dr. Andrew Pipe, chairman of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, told CBC News.

So far, only Caucasians and Asians have been studied. Researchers found that 10 per cent of white people and as many as 66 per cent of Asians are missing both copies of the gene.

“I think it points out the limitations of the current approach to testing and it will compel us to refine our testing strategies in the future.”—Dr. Andrew Pipe, chairman, Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport

The flipside is that athletes who belong to racial groups that have a high proportion of the missing gene, may be suspected of doping when in fact they are not.

Canadian gymnast David Kikuchi, whose father is Japanese, is concerned people will suspect him of doping. “It’s just something else that can cast some doubt on athletes and especially clean athletes who haven’t done anything wrong.”

The only way to know for sure which athletes have the gene mutation would be to do DNA testing on everyone, experts say.

Canada’s Olympic swim coach, Pierre LaFontaine, thinks only cheaters would have a problem giving a blood sample. “I think the ones that want a clean sport probably would be very happy to put themselves in that situation,” he said.

But not even the World Anti-Doping Agency is calling for that yet. Instead, it favours a so-called “athletes’ passport,” a record of all an athlete’s screening tests so officials have a baseline against which to compare other results.

“It’s a more straightforward way to go and probably avoids a lot of ethical questions that we would have to face if we were to test the athletes for their DNA,” said Dr. Olivier Rabin, science director of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Right now, anti-doping officials say DNA testing is too costly and too complex to be widely used. But they agree that genetic research is pushing the doping world into a new era.

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