BEIJING -- Anti-doping experts reported progress Thursday in the search for a reliable test for gene doping, although they still don't know when it will be ready for use in competition.
IOC medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist said a test would be put into use at the Olympics and other events as soon as a method is proven reliable -- regardless of whether hard evidence shows athletes are manipulating their genes to improve performance.
No such evidence exists so far, although the World Anti-Doping Agency has received information that "there is an interest out there in certain circles," particularly among coaches and other members of athletes' entourages, Ljungqvist said.
"We will certainly, as soon as we have a reliable method available, make use of it for the purpose of identifying whether there is something going on based on strategic information," the Swedish official said. "I would really estimate that people realize that it's probably a bit risky today, perhaps very risky if they should jump to misuse. But there seems to be mental readiness to take it on once it is available in some sort of safe way."
Gene doping, prohibited by the International Olympic Committee and WADA, is considered the potential future of cheating in sports. Current tests detect more conventional forms of doping.
Gene doping involves transferring genes directly into human cells to blend into an athlete's DNA. It is an illegal offshoot of gene therapy, which typically alters DNA to fight diseases such as muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis.
While it offers the potential for enhancing muscle growth and increasing strength and endurance, gene doping also carries potential risks such as serious genetic damage, including cancer.
Regulating gene and cell doping is especially complicated because the line between therapeutic treatment for muscle diseases and misuse for performance enhancement is blurred, said Ljungqvist, who is also a WADA vice president and chairman of its health, medical and research committee.
Signs of gene doping are also varied and subtle and can be easily confused with physiological changes resulting from diet or simple illness, said Theodore Friedmann, chairman of WADA's gene doping panel.
Still, he said experts were "cautiously optimistic, that we are making progress, and that will help sport and will help future athletes do what they do best, and that is compete in the clean world. So that's why I feel optimistic that we are being proactive at this stage, not reactive."
Friedmann said testing remains at the laboratory stage.
The experts spoke at the end of a two-day WADA meeting in Beijing on gene doping that included more than 40 leading experts in gene therapy, anti-doping scientist and sports ethicists.
The symposium, organized by WADA in conjunction with China's national anti-doping agency, was the fourth held by the agency on gene doping and the first since 2008. Since then, stem-cell therapy as a form of medical treatment has made important advances, requiring WADA to update progress on testing and the field in general, Ljungqvist said.
The first symposium was held in 2002 in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., followed by meetings in Stockholm in 2005 and St. Petersburg, Russia.
A gene-doping test may one day offer another way to detect other forms of doping, the experts said.