Did you know DNA influences how efficiently you form new blood vessels?

Gene doping with VEGFA to boost your endurance

From the inception of the Olympics in Ancient Greece, the goal of every athlete that participates is one and the same – winning. While the motivation to win initially evolved from a competition for tangible goods, fame, glory and prestige, the drive to enhance personal performance continues to prevail. We have witnessed numerous athletes being stripped of their medals for using banned substances. Around the time of London 2012, gene doping was recognized as the biggest threat against fair play in the future of the Olympics. As a consequence, non-therapeutic use of genetic materials was added to the list of prohibited substances by the World Anti-Doping Agency. While gene doping is not yet a reality, if we had the potential to change our DNA to enhance our performance, which ‘fitness gene(s)’ will emerge as the front runners for gene doping? Undoubtedly VEGFA will be one of them because it promotes the growth of blood vessels, increasing the blood flow and oxygen supply to your muscles, which is exactly what you would need to boost your endurance.

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Gene doping is described as the act of introducing genetic materials into an individual’s body that gives him or her a physiological advantage over others in competition. It is actually a modified form of gene therapy, a technique scientists are perfecting so that one day it can be used to treat people with genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis. The idea is, a gene of your choice like VEGFA, will be generated in the lab and injected into your muscles. Since this gene codes for a protein involved in the growth of new blood vessels, elevating the level of VEGFA will increase the blood flow to the muscles, bringing with it extra oxygen. Endurance athletes rely heavily on oxygen to power their muscles, which means someone with extra oxygen in their muscles will have an advantage over someone with just the normal levels of oxygen.

There are a number of reasons why VEGFA doping may actually be a realistic option. Firstly, VEGFA is responsible for the exercise-induced growth of small blood vessels called capillaries in our muscles. Exercise increases VEGFA levels in the blood, and the same outcome can be achieved using safe and effective VEGFA gene therapies. Injecting the VEGFA gene directly into the leg muscles of patients with impaired blood flow or ischemia alleviated symptoms of ischemia and restored the blood flow to the leg. Also supporting VEGFA gene doping is the fact that a variations of the VEGFA gene exists from person to person which is known to influence athletic performance. The rs2010963 variant increases the activity of the VEGFA gene. This variant is more common in endurance athletes than non-athletes, indicating an endurance advantage. Athletes with rs2010963 have more VEGFA protein in their blood and higher levels of oxygen in their muscles, and this oxygen helps them power their muscles more efficiently. All in all, there is enough evidence to believe that elevating VEGFA levels will boost physical endurance, and gene doping with VEGFA (when it becomes a reality) might offer endurance athletes an advantage over their competitors.

Approximately 200 ‘fitness genes’ are known to date. Many of them are overrepresented among elite athletes, a fact that demonstrates some among us are genetically destined to be runners, swimmers, rowers and skiers. Yet, in the quest to become the best in the world, it is natural to want to use any means necessary to achieve that ultimate goal, even if it involves genetically modifying one’s body without contemplating its consequences. 

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