The trial of the disgraced German athletics coach Thomas Springstein, who has been accused of giving performance-enhancing drugs to minors, took an eerie turn this week when the court in the eastern German town of Magdeburg was presented with evidence pointing to Springstein's involvement in genetic doping.
E-mails sent and received by Springstein, a one-time coach of the German Athletics Association (DLV), which were seized by the police during a raid on Springstein's home, brought up references to Repoxygen -- a banned substance meant to be used in gene therapy to treat patients with anemia.
Repoxygen helps to induce a controlled release of erythropoietin (EPO), a substance that stimulates the production of red blood cells, thereby increasing the amount of oxygen the blood can deliver to the muscles.
In one email, Springstein wrote that "new Repoxygen is hard to get. Please give me new instructions soon so that I can order the product before Christmas."
Difficult to detect
The International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency have already banned the use of synthetic EPO among athletes, but are yet to design a test for Repoxygen, which teaches human cells to produce EPO on their own.
The difficulty of producing such a test lies in the fact that Repoxygen allows the body to switch the gene on in response to law oxygen levels and switch it off after the levels have been raised.
Repoxygen was prototyped in 2002 by the British pharmaceutical company Oxford Biomedica but never went into production since the company didn't believe it could compete with the availability of synthetic EPO on the market. The product, nonetheless, caught the attention of the anti-doping agencies at the time.
"You can turn it on and off," said Larry Bowers, the managing director of the US Anti-Doping Agency after a meeting in Atlanta in Oct. 2002.
"It acts more or less like the body," Bowers said.
Playing with fire
How Repoxygen could have made it to the black market is still not known. Professor Alan Kingsman, Oxford Biomedica's chief executive, claims that his company maintains strict controls over its products.
"I'd be extremely surprised if anything we made got on to the black market," said Kingsman.
According to Kingsman, only a fairly advanced lab could reproduce Repoxygen based on the information which was made available by Oxford Biomedica.
"But if would be very irresponsible for a number of reasons," Kingsman said. "For a start, we only went as far as testing it on mice. To use it in the human body would be playing with fire."
A bad omen for the Olympics
Most experts were taken by surprise by the revelations of the Springstein case, since the general opinion was that genetic doping was not practiced and that it would not become an actual threat before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The news of genetic doping will now unavoidably loom over the Turin Winter Games, which start next week.
"We have been expecting gene doping, but not so soon. I don't know how they have it, but they do," said Werner Franke, a German cell biologist who has studied numerous doping cases in the former East Germany.
"This is worse than in the GDR and more brutal than the BALCO scandal," Franke said.
The founder of the US BALCO labs was sentenced to four months in a minimum security prison and four months of home confinement last year for masterminding the distribution of illegal steroids among elite athletes.
A criminal act
The German Athletics Association (DLV) has urged the lawmakers to explicitly outlaw genetic doping, citing the difficulty which various sports bodies would have in monitoring the practice.
"We need tighter laws," said DLV President Clemens Prokop.
The 47-year-old Springstein faces a stiff jail sentence if found guilty of supplying drugs to minors back in 2003, especially if the accusations of genetic doping are confirmed.
Springstein has also been accused of giving several injections to one of his female athletes to treat an injury despite not having a viable medical permit.
Before the doping scandal came to light, Springstein worked with some of Germany's top athletes, including East German track stars Katrin Krabbe and Grit Breuer, who were both suspended for two years for using the banned steroid clenbuterol in 1992.Krabbe won the 100m and 200m world titles in 1991 while Breuer, who is Springstein's partner, won the 1990 European title at 400 meters.