Sat, Sep 09, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Stem cells could be next big thing in sports doping


For athletes, stem cells have much more than the potential to cure disease and save lives -- they may be able to heal injuries, boost strength and endurance, and provide a lasting edge over the competition.

If it sounds like stem cells are the next frontier for doping in sports, it's because they very well may be.

"There's a spin-off technology from stem cells that could produce super-athletes," said Paul Griffiths, managing director of CryoGenesis International, which stores umbilical cord blood in its bank for potential later therapeutic use.

He believes that injecting stem cells into healthy muscles might increase their size and even restore them to their youthful capacity.

"You could potentially find a 40-year-old man with 20-year-old legs," Griffiths said.

While such applications could be years away, their potential use raises more ethical questions about doping in sports.

Professional sports have grappled with the question this summer after Tour de France winner Floyd Landis and Olympic and world 100m champion Justin Gatlin tested positive for banned substances.

Scientists are considering the potential fallout from the new technology, and sports officials will have to decide whether to allow it.

Like gene doping, which involves transferring genes into human cells to blend directly into an athlete's own DNA, it is thought that an athlete's stem cells could be injected back into the body. The regenerative powers of stem cells offer countless sporting possibilities, such as increasing endurance, speed, flexibility and strength.

Griffiths' company counts five professional soccer players as clients who have frozen stem cells from their children's umbilical cords in their bank.

Experimental studies in the US found that stem cells successfully regenerated all the ligaments in the knees of goats -- their knee structure is believed to be similar to that of humans -- within 12 weeks.

Were such techniques possible in humans, athletes would certainly have reason to be tempted.

"Even if it meant only an extra four or five years in their career, for an athlete, that could mean millions," Griffiths said.

Still, stem cell experts say that such technologies are still years away from being routinely available.

Though such applications remain highly experimental, anti-doping authorities are already gearing for their arrival in sports. And while experts agree that testing for an individual's own stem cells reintroduced into the body would be virtually impossible, that does not mean that stem cell abuse would be undetectable.

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