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The Future of Steroids And Why Blood Testing Will Not Be Enough

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What good is a blood test if they don't address the future of performance enhancement?
What good is a blood test if they don't address the future of performance enhancement?

Although somewhat tame given the source material, the profile of Ray Kurzweil in the documentary Transcendent Man, is a unique character study when you read between the lines.

Kurzweil is a technoprophet: a description he may not agree with, but one that is fitting for someone that believes that, through technological innovation, man himself will become immortal given the means with which information proliferates.

Kurzweil speaks of "singularities" (a Terminator-like scenario in which man and machine become one), artificial afterlives (ala Vanilla Sky), brain uploading (think Johnny Mnemonic - but without Keanu Reeves' interesting interpretation of Shakespeare), and if all of this sounds abstract and a bit hokey, then you'll find it unsurprising to hear heavyweights like Pulitzer prize winner Douglas Hofstadter call some of Kurzweil's ideas ‘dope crap'.

However, Kurzweil is no dummy, and he's simply extrapolating on some fundamental principles concerning the rate of change. This exponential rate of change is obvious in a lot of ways. The phone you use to play Angry Birds, and find out what Quinton Jackson is whining about now is a small computer that once cost millions of dollars in a lab at MIT that required the attention of a large group of the world's best scientists only a few decades ago.

Some are not so obvious. Like DNA sequencing. To give you an idea, consider these numbers.

"The genome sequenced by the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium (actually a composite from several individuals) took 13 years and cost $3 billion. Now, using the latest sequencers from Ilumina, of San Diego, California, a human genome can be read in eight days at the cost of about $10,000"

That was in 2010.

What does all of this have to do with MMA? If case you haven't noticed, MMA has a bit of a steroid problem, what with every fighter and their mother able to claim a testosterone deficiency in order to get testosterone. However, this is a discussion about the future, and so the question is, what good are urine and blood tests if gene doping is next on the horizon?

First off, a lab story: Mauro Giacca of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology crammed mice with copies of a gene called IGF-1 (a gene that repairs and bulks up muscle). Did experiments with mice prove IGF-1 to be a good candidate for gene doping? The numbers don't lie. Having extra IGF-1 "triggered the production of 10 times more protein than normal in the muscles" in the mice, explains Andy Coghlan in the New Scientist.

"Giacca also saw activity soar in genes controlling energy production, contraction of muscles and respiration. Also detectable in the muscle were traces of the virus used to deliver the genes. However, the gene, protein and virus were undetectable in blood or urine from the mice."

Gene doping is not the prognostication of a pseudo prophet though. It's basically gene therapy that requires a fairly simple and straightforward process: to inject genes into cells, scientists use a delivery system called a vector. The most efficient vector is the virus because in some ways it's already a delivery system, inserting its genetic material into cells in order to replicate itself.

Athletes already have access to this technology. So what's the risk for athletes? If you're curious about the risk of gene doping, look no further than some of the side effects incurred by gene therapy; cancer being one of them, as has happened in some trials in which children developed leukemia as a direct result of undergoing gene therapy.

For athletes however, perhaps the risk is worth the reward. I'm reminded of the following passage from Bill McKibben's book, Enough:

In 1995, researchers asked two hundred Olympic hopefuls if they'd take a drug that would guarantee them a five-year winning streak and then kill them. Almost half said yes.

I would never simply take a fighter at his word, but if the testimony of the those that compete in MMA is worth anything, the number of fighters willing to risk their health for the physical advantage is closing in on 'everyone'.

What's worse is that MMA has bred a culture in which loopholes are embraced, and accountability is saved for the potheads instead of the meatheads.

The prospect of gene doping provokes a far broader, almost metaphysical reaction. Because the next step is not simply inserting the proper genes into muscles, or blood. But making sure the genes are there at birth so that the additional force of nurture, can mold and shape one's nature for an exponentially greater effect. That technology has a name, called 'germline engineering': a reference to the manipulation of the germ cells, or sperm and egg cells - a technology that started in 1978. More interestingly, a "precursor" technology called 'cytoplasmic transfer' used in 2001 (since banned), at a New Jersey fertility clinic gave birth to something very unique: children with three biological parents.

I'd like to write a paragraph about 'hope', and I'd like to even articulate my idea of solutions for the future of PED use, but like everyone else, I'm conflicted. Do steroids warrant moral outrage? You have people like Josh Gross, who think cheaters deserve severe punishment, and then you have others like Jordan Breen who accept that this is part of sports culture. Both sides have valid points to make, however, I'm not sure we can be indifferent in the face of technologies such as gene doping.

If there's a silver lining, it's that Mauro Giacca found that gene doping was detectable through a muscle biopsy.

Good luck getting Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao to agree to that before a fight.