Ethics have not kept up with the current state of scientific advances – and future advances – in the field of gene and hormone therapies.

As evidenced by the human growth hormone (HGH) and steroids in sport scandal, and the attitudes expressed by athletes, fans, journalists and even some members of the medical community, it is clear that many in our society are not ready to deal with the complex ethical issue associated with this story.  As medicine has advanced, there has not been a concomitant advance in the general public’s understanding of the implications of gene and hormone therapy as performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

That’s not to say that some folks haven’t been aware of the potential Pandora’s Box posed by genetic and hormonal enhancements.  In 2002 scientists like Dr. Lee Sweeney and Dr. Ted Freemann, men at the forefront of the development of these advances in medicine, were talking about the potential for these nascent therapies to be abused by those in the athletic community.

Speaking at a meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics in September of 2002 Dr. Sweeney recognized the potential of IGF-1 to be used as a performance enhancer based on research that had been done.  Dr. Sweeney related that IGF-1 is so effective in the repair and rebuilding of muscle tissue and the rate and extensiveness of muscle growth in response to training, that its use for improved athletic performance was a foregone conclusion.

While everyone is concentrating on steroids – representing the Stone Age of performance enhancers – and HGH – current, and soon to be, Old News – IGF-1 represents the Next Generation of PED.  Take the time to read what Dr. Sweeney revealed with regard to the research on IGF-1 and realize that these findings were from over 6 years ago. 

When you consider how many advances there have been over this period of time and that you can purchase IGF-1 via the Internet, it’s reasonable to think that IGF-1 is being used by elite athletes in 2008. Scoff if you will, but remember that athletes and others were using HGH derived from the pituitary glands of cadavers over 20 years ago. 

It’s not so far-fetched to think that people are still pushing the envelope today.  Six years ago Dr. Sweeney was of the opinion that an athlete could be genetically engineered and that the process would be undetectable because there would be no signature in the blood or urine.  Athletes and coaches interested in the finding out about the next generation of PEDs, regardless of the physical risk or cost, no doubt know what Dr. Sweeney was talking about.

These advances, what these substances can do, while expressed in a simple, straight-forward manner are incredibly complex.  We’re not talking about popping a few Advils or amphetamines.  Actually, by the cavalier attitude expressed by all of the athletes that have been caught up in this scandal – Clemens and his wife, Andy Pettitte, Chuck Knoblauch, Rodney Harrison, Brian McNamee and Kirk Radomski, Victor Conte – it’s clear that these people had no clue as to what they were dealing with. 

The people using and dispensing HGH expressed very little that would leave anyone to believe that they understand the import of their actions. How can we expect people who use these cutting edge therapies to understand the ethical implications of their actions when they don’t even have a grip on what these substances do? 

Based on their public statements, stories and testimony there is no way that guys like Pettitte and Knoblauch knew what they were dealing with.  Sportswriters and other kvetches who have said or written anything along the lines that these substances don’t do anything or that they don’t understand what the big deal is, are derelict in their duties and aren’t worth listening to. And yet there has been little responsible commentary pointing this out. 

Little has been written or said that deals with the extreme power possessed by HGH.  Quite the contrary, as many respectable voices have gone on record with the, “HGH might not even work” line of nonsense. Baseball writers who complain that they have to cover the PED story just want to get back to recycling their every spring and summer stories dealing with clubhouse nonsense, conjecture about why a guy is in a slump or question why so-and-so is batting 5th instead of 6th. 

I’ve read items by guys who want to get back to writing about baseball.  That’s just code for a writer who is too lazy, tired and ignorant to do their job. These types can’t – don’t want to – try to understand the ethical implications of the next generation of PEDs.  The discussion shouldn’t revolve around whether or not HGH works – even though it clearly offers incredible benefits to athletes – but rather discuss the responsibility and obligations of the organizational bodies of sport to police their sport and protect the athletes.

How can these writers deal with the next gen, more potent group of therapies when they can’t even get a grip on HGH?  How can these folks express any ideas on the ethical implications of this story when they are still trying to understand what the substances do? Short answer; they can’t.

In July of 2002 Dr. Friedmann, the Chairman of the Recombinant DNA Committee, stated that the use of experimental therapies that have not been reviewed and regulated, whether for therapy or enhancement, is unethical. 

Have you read anything about what Dr. Friedman or Dr. Sweeney said over a half a decade ago?

Obviously, there’s more to the ethics of this issue than can be written in one blog post.  But the point is that people have to first understand exactly what the substances and therapies in question can do before they can be expected to deal with the ethical ramifications of their use.  And that rather then depend on the mainstream media to provide reliable information on the subject, those folks interested in understanding the issue are going to have to do some research of their own.


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