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Stem Cell Shocker

DW staff (nda)
July 23, 2008

A German television documentary suggesting that genetic doping is possible in the Olympic host country of China has been met with shock and disgust by scientists and doping officials.

Lab technicians work with cells
The possibility of stem cell research being perverted for doping has caused shock wavesImage: AP

"I could never imagine this," said Mario Thevis, head of a Cologne-based center for preventive doping research, on Tuesday, July 22.

The documentary, entitled "Flying High in Middle Kingdom," broadcast on Monday night by Germany's state-run ARD network, showed a reporter, claiming to be a swimming coach, inquiring about performance-enhancing stem cell treatment for athletes in a Chinese hospital.

Filmed with a hidden camera, a doctor named a price of $24,000 and outlined the procedure.

The doctor said the treatment had not been tested among athletes but was safe -- a fact disputed by others.

"Yes. We have no experience with athletes here, but the treatment is safe and we can help you," the doctor is heard to say. "It strengthens lung function and stem cells go into the bloodstream and reach the organs. It takes two weeks. I recommend four intravenous injections ... 40 million stem cells or double that, the more the better. We also use human growth hormones, but you have to be careful because they are on the doping list."

Genetic doping expert Patrick Diel was shocked by the revelation: "There are huge health risks. This is shocking. I was surprised to see this. Honestly, this is beyond my worst fears."

Thevis expressed doubts whether such a treatment as described by the doctor would enhance the performance.

Not science fiction, science fact

Toronto sports doctor Mauro di Pasquale said on the documentary that there was an ongoing trade in gene doping in China.

A cell is removed from an embryo
Some claim that athletes have undergone gene dopingImage: AP

"I know of several incidences -- and this is from talking to coaches and other people that have direct knowledge -- where several professional athletes in sports such as soccer, football and several amateur athletes even on the elite Olympic level have gone to China and had gene doping performed," he said. "These doctors -- I can't give the names -- are involved in university clinics, they are involved in hospitals and they also have their personal clinics."

However, the Chinese sports ministry insists the government is determined to stamp out the illegal trade.

"On the issue of international criticism of the illegal trade in medication, the Chinese government takes the issue very seriously and takes strong measures to fight that illegal trade," said Jiang Zhixue, general secretary at the Chinese sports ministry.

The general director of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), David Howman, expressed his disgust when confronted in the documentary with the alleged practices in China, which hosts the Olympics August 8-24 in Beijing.

Howman spoke of "a terrible feeling" and named it shocking that health experts "showed such a lack of ethics and experimented with humans for a lot of money.

Dangerous disregard of ethics

"This is very distressing," he said. "It is very scary that health professionals should have such a lack of ethics and try what we know to be experimental on human beings for a vast amount of money.

Dr. Satish Totey, a professor at Reliance Life Science Research facility, studies embryonic stem cells at the facility's laboratory in Bombay
The work of law-abiding doctors is being underminedImage: AP

"That doesn't match up to the standards that we ordinarily require of doctors and other medical practitioners," Howman told ARD. "This is even more dreadful, because what they are proposing to do is a total breach of the standards we have implied to make sure that cheating through the use of gene doping or gene therapy is prohibited.

"And it is very distressing to see that perhaps it's been used now or could be used in a country where the magnificent event (the Olympic Games) will soon take place."

The documentary makers also approached a Chinese company, GenSci, which agreed to supply steroids and EPO.

In another undercover sting operation, the investigators spoke to a salesperson while filming covertly.

"The substance is a doping substance according to our government and that is why we are not supposed to sell this before the Olympics," the salesman is heard saying. "But after the Games business will be much easier again."

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