The Next Frontier Of Sports Doping

American Floyd Landis could be stripped of his Tour de France title after testing positive for a synthetic male hormone. But as Russ Mitchell reports, that way of cheating could soon seem old-fashioned after the next frontier of sports doping is reached.

James Mason and his team are gene technology pioneers, turning an ordinary cold virus into a medicine delivery system.

"Every disease or injury you can think of, people are trying gene therapy approaches to treat those," Mason says.

French doctors have used gene therapy to treat nearly a dozen "bubble boys" - kids with severe immune deficiencies.

"One day this will really change medicine as we know it," Mason says.

This same technique may also change sports forever someday. It's called gene-doping, and there's growing concern it's the future of cheating by turning normal cells into virtually undetectable drug factories.

"Some athletes will want to use gene doping to create super strong muscles. Some will want to increase the supply of red blood cells in their body so they have greater stamina," says bio-ethicist Thomas Murray.

How does it work? A virus - like the one for the common cold - is emptied of its genetic content and implanted with new genes for speed or strength. The virus is then injected into the target muscle, where it attaches itself to individual cells and squirts in the gene.

"The virus is sort of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers,'" Mason says. "I'm just using the virus to deliver genes I want to deliver, rather as opposed to the wild type a virus would deliver."

This is not science fiction. University of Pennsylvania scientists made elderly mice 25 percent stronger and faster. And, the Salk Institute in San Diego produced 'marathon mice' able to run twice as far as normal.

"In the face of some dramatic results in the laboratory with animals, I can see why athletes would get excited by gene transfer," Mason says.

Thomas Murray, the bio-ethicist, takes the threat of gene-doping very seriously.

"Knowing what we know about athletes, and the people who hang around athletes, it won't surprise me at all if there are people today or in the very near future who will be claiming to offer gene doping for athletes," he says.

Last January, in fact, evidence against a German coach on trial for doping athletes revealed he was trying to obtain a gene therapy product that increases the cells which carry oxygen to muscles.

"The genie is out of the bottle in a way, and it's visible," Dr. Theodore Friedmann, a gene therapist at the World Anti-Doping Agency, says.

Now Dr. Friedmann and the World Anti-Doping Agency are racing to develop tests to detect subtle changes in the bodies of gene-dopers.

"One starts to interfere with normal body processes and you pay a price for that," Dr. Friedmann says.

Remember the French bubble boys? Three developed cancer. And those mighty mice? Many died faster than their weak cousins. But as recent sports-doping scandals prove, some athletes view risk as an acceptable price for glory.

"By 2012, 2016, I think it's anyone's guess where we will be," Murray says. "By then, we can only hope that the scientists have made significant progress in detecting gene transfer."