In the year 2036, the Olympic Games may be more exciting than ever. The athletes competing will be stronger, faster, better than ever before. As society develops and reaches new standards, inevitably so do athletes and sport - this is how world records are broken every year. But what if a new technology, gene editing, could take athletes to a level of performance we never thought possible?
Andrew Maynard, a professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of the Innovation in Society and 2017-18 Global Sport Institute Fellow, along with Diana Bowman, associate professor of Arizona State’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, are working on a research project that examines the potential impacts of human gene editing on global sport.
The two spoke at the inaugural Global Sport Summit on April 13, 2018 as part of a panel about the future and implications of gene editing in sport. Also on the panel was professional and college football Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow Sr. The panel was moderated by David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Performance and the keynote speaker at the event.
The panel focused on the potential uses of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), a type of technology that gives scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.
“You engineer these little snippets of DNA and protein that will zip along your DNA and identify a bit it wants to snip out and get rid of it," Maynard said. "But even more than that you can convert this into a search and replace function, so now if you have a little bit of genetic code that you want to add in to an organism to give it some trait or enhance some trait, you can develop a CRISPR sequence that will zip along your DNA, snip out what you don’t want and add in what you do want.”
According to Maynard, this technology is relatively cheap and accessible compared to other kinds of synthetic biology, and while the technology is currently being used on crops and animals, many people are eager about the potential for use in humans.
This leads to a wide plethora of legal, ethical and practical questions, which Bowman said must be segmented into different categories.
“I think we have to start breaking it down into little boxes to start off with. This technology offers us amazing potential in terms of therapeutic applications and we’re already seeing it in clinical trials in China for example around very rare cancers. So we have therapeutic applications which are very exciting and will offer opportunities to cure diseases that otherwise we could not deal with,” she said. “And then we have the enhancement side of it, and we can look at enhancement from the germine, so embryonic cell side, as well as somatic cells.”
While the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has already banned the use of technology, commonly referred to in sport as “gene doping,” a major issue lies in the fact that it may not be detectable if athletes do use it, particularly if it is done before the athlete is born.
“In thinking about sport and engineering the athlete of the future, I could theoretically take an embryo, use this technology, and then my child would have the traits that we’d engineered into that embryo,” Bowman explained. “Is that detectable? No. We do not have the tools to actually detect that type of addition or change in the embryo and therefore the child, so if you want to think about really cool ways to cheat in 18 or 20 years’ time, well I could be the person who does that for my child.”
Furthermore, Bowman added that currently, because of the inability to detect the use of this technology, a ban on it could not really be enforced.
“How in terms of society do we deal with that? Is that something the law allows? Is it something the law can even stop? At this time absolutely not,” she said. “So we need to begin to think about what are the potential applications, taking therapeutic as well as enhancement and breaking it down to think about what is it that we do want and particularly what do we have question marks over.”
While most discourse surrounding this issue focuses solely on the ethical implications of using the technology for athletic enhancement, the panelists also noted the potential for it to be used for preventative or restorative purposes.
“There are cases where we know a little bit about some genes involved in making it harder for some people to recover from brain trauma than others. Now if that’s something we could edit for a protective purpose in football than that would be great,” Epstein said in discussing a best-case scenario use of the technology.
The panelists also discussed the importance of society in general and the sport community in particular to begin having conversations about these issues now, as this technology is rapidly becoming available and without guidelines in place beforehand would be impossible to detect or control.
“In previous performance enhancing, and not just performance enhancing but painkillers, sports have often been behind the discussion and I think that’s caused a lot of problems,” Epstein said. “It’s sometimes caused athletes not to have a lot of trust in the medical community. In this case I think it’s great that we’re talking about this because while we can’t predict everything, these discussions need to happen on the front end.”
“We’ve learned from previous technologies that we actually need to engage a wide range of people as stakeholders in the discussion and the debate about how we actually utilize the technology,” Bowman added. “So what I’m really excited about is we’re actually having this conversation at a sports conference. And that rather than this being a hundred scientists and policy makers in a room, we’re actually starting to have this discussion with people who might benefit or be affected negatively by this technology.”
Maynard noted how quickly the technology is advancing, and how, when combined with other technologies, it could have immense impacts on sport and on society.
“The reality is that gene editing isn’t a technology on its own. The thing that’s going to make it really have a profound impact is how it merges with other technologies. And I think the more we realize that there is this confluence, the better,” he said. “We’re not that far away from computers that can actually design designer athletes or the DNA for designer athletes. That is I think when I think it needs to go, and I think there are profound consequences of being able to do that that we haven’t even begun to think about as a society.”
Emily Ducker is a sophomore journalism student at Arizona State University.