A session of the 37th Asian Racing Conference in Seoul focused on the critical threat of gene doping.
Dr. Makoto Inoue, presidential counselor for international affairs at the Japan Racing Association and vice chairman of the Asian Racing Federation, welcomed delegates to the session, noting there is still much to learn.
"Gene doping was raised for the first time two years ago at the Asian Racing Conference in Mumbai," Inoue said. "The threat of gene doping is not very well understood by the industry … this session is of vital importance."
Dr. Kanichi Kusano, JRA official veterinarian and chair of the ARF Drug Control Committee, as well as the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities Gene Doping Control Sub-Committee, provided a background with regards to gene doping and the role of the sub-committee.
"Gene doping is just a trend of the times. In effect, it is the misuse of drugs—in this instance, the misuse of DNA," Kusano said. "It just means that we need new experts and new instruments in order to deal with gene doping.
"The risk of gene doping from these two forms is, firstly, damage to the integrity of sport and, secondly, the risk of creating a genetically modified Thoroughbred. Hence, the IFHA formed the Gene Doping Sub-Committee in March 2016.
"Our mission statement is to advise racing and breeding authorities on the regulation of gene therapies and to assist in the formulation of strategies and guidelines", Kusano said. "Article 6B of the IFHA's International Agreement on Breeding, Racing and Wagering was completely revised in 2017 to focus on gene therapies, while the regulation of gene editing in the IABRW is currently a work in progress."
Kusano concluded with a message for racing regulators.
"Strengthen your rules of racing and improve your testing system for gene doping," he said. "Check that the laboratories in your jurisdiction have the appropriate experts and equipment. Provide financial support for research and educate the veterinarians, trainers and stable staff on gene doping."
Faced with the threat gene doping poses, it came as some relief when Dr. Natasha Hamilton, Racing Australia's Director of Equine Genetics Research Laboratory, presented a recently developed method for detecting equine gene doping. Hamilton began by identifying the difference between gene therapy, namely the insertion of a gene to cure or treat a disease, and gene doping, which is the insertion, modification or editing of a gene to improve performance.
"The aim of our gene doping sub-committee is to prevent people from using gene doping to win more races," she said. "Do we really need to worry? Well, if you look at the recent racing doping scandals across the globe, especially the use of cobalt and sodium bicarbonate, then, yes, we do. People looking for that edge will also be on the lookout for something new and undetectable to use to enhance performance.
"In order to try and prevent the use of gene doping, we needed to look at what genes are already used in gene therapy to combat diseases, what drugs are used in their protein form for performance enhancement, and what known genes could affect performance, such as genes that affect muscle strength, energy metabolism, pain reception, injury repair, oxygen regulation and angiogenesis (growth factors). Knowing which genes are likely to be manipulated helps in detecting if gene doping has occurred."
Hamilton explained how the test for gene doping actually works.
"The inserted or transgene creates a unique sequence, which is different from the normal DNA, which we can then test for. The test can detect 10 copies in the reaction mixture and currently screens for five genes in two reaction mixtures. The test is inexpensive, and the results are available within a day. Surveillance testing was carried out during the 2018 Sydney Autumn Carnival. Of course, this test is relevant to all breeds of horse and can be used for other events such as the Olympics."
Dr. Teruaki Tozaki, technical advisor for the Laboratory of Racing Chemistry in Japan, introduced the delegates to the risks of gene editing and the difficulties in detecting and regulating gene editing. He noted that genetically modified animals have already been produced worldwide with the use of gene editing.
So what is gene editing, actually? According to Tozaki: "Gene editing and its industrial applications can no longer be stopped. The science has been simplified to the degree that you can now buy a DIY bacterial gene engineering kit online for a mere $159, making it easy to perform genome editing with only the most basic knowledge.
"The race to produce the first genetically engineered super-horse has already begun. Argentinian scientists have started performing gene editing on horses, and it is speculated that the first super-horse is likely to be produced by them as early as 2019. The gene that they are targeting is myostatin, which is crucial for muscle development. In other words, it could allow a horse to jump higher and run faster."
For now, gene doping is regulated by a number of authorities and is prohibited by the WADA. But while the IFHA has disqualified genetically modified horses from participating in races, the administration of genetically modified cells is not yet clearly regulated.
"For this reason, the IABRW should change Article 6B as soon as possible," Tozaki said.
Blood samples are being collected from all foals and stored for future use. "In the future," Tozaki said, "whole genome sequencing will be done for each foal at birth—thus enabling a retest of that foal once it is a racehorse in order to confirm whether genome editing has occurred."