The World Anti-Doping Agency has considered obtaining Olympic athletes’ genetic code for years, and now that could soon be becoming a reality, thanks to the decreasing cost of sequencing. 

According to Wired.com, the proposal was seriously being discussed for the first time at WADA’s headquarters in Montreal. It would eventually work as a check on “gene doping,” the idea of changing the body’s biological machinery to make it stronger, run faster or recover more quickly. 

With the cost of sequencing a person’s entire genome dropping to only a few hundred dollars, the agency could implement the plan within the next few years. 

“It will be easy in the future to have full genome sequencing for a reasonable amount of money,” explained Olivier Rabin, WADA’s science director. “It will be reasonable to have full genome sequencing with some very strong ethical guidelines.”

Using genetic sequencing in this way would be an extension of an idea that sports authorities had in 2008, called the biological passport. It serves as a way of monitoring various indicators of an athlete’s blood, hormones, and body chemistry over time – searching for changes that could indicate cheating, even though the athlete may not have triggered a positive drug test. The biological passport effectively looks for physiological changes caused by doping. It would even have an eight-year statute of limitations so they can re-test older blood or urine samples when new tests or analytical methods are developed. 

Up until now, WADA authorities have used the passport to catch athletes who use trace amounts of drugs that are below the testing threshold. However, without a baseline read of an athlete’s genes, it would be harder to identify doping cases that modify the body’s blueprint itself. 

Sports scientists who are advising WADA are considering whether the best way to prevent gene doping would be to have a record of the athlete’s entire genetic code – or possibly, just the sections that contain genes associated with athletic performance. 

Genes often work in combination with each other in ways that aren’t completely understood, explained Thomas Friedmann, head of WADA’s gene doping advisory panel and a professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Diego. 

“The connection between a given gene and a given athletic ability is not one to one,” he said. “People have claimed that specific genes for fast-twitch muscle fibers or energy metabolism will influence athletic potential, and I think there’s probably some truth in those. But they are not specific determinants to whether they are a successful athlete or not.”

His concern continues when discussing the use of CRISPR/Cas-9 in inhibiting genes. “It’s very hard,” he added. “If you think about how hard it is to design and work through the technical and procedural issues for human gene therapy, that’s been very difficult. You can’t just go throwing around things in experimental procedures with humans. There are international constraints.”

This can be said for publicly-funded medical labs, but it is no secret that athletes have access to private doctors who are willing to prescribe illegal drugs, experiment on themselves, and even try out new unproven techniques on athletes. This attitude won’t change as long as there is a percieved advantage in altering the genetic code to boost performance. 

Furthermore, during such discussions, the issues regarding genetic privacy prevailed. It would be assumed that if an athlete submits their sequence, the people who get to see that information will likely be debated by athletes, coaches, and sports officials. 

US Olympic cross-country skier, Kikkan Randall, noted that she’d like to see the proposal first, but does like the idea of increased transparency. She’s competed against Russian skiers who have then later been caught doping, and therefore strives for an even biological playing field. 

“It that’s what it is going to take to keep the sport clean, I’d be in favour of it,” she commented. She continued to explain that the sequencing of genomes might even have an unexpected benefit. Knowing more about the interplay of genetics, biology and training that makes high-level athletes perform could also help cure diseases and conditions faced by the rest of us.