Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008 Mike Kalichman is a tough interview. As the director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology, he sees his role as the questioner, not as the final authority on the controversial issues with which he routinely grapples. He believes science is inextricably linked with ethics and he wants to get people talking about the questions that arise from advances with the potential to change the world we live in.

To that end, the Ethics Center hosts a monthly science and ethics forum at the Rueben H. Fleet Science Center. This year, the forums have grappled with the stem cell debate, technology at the border and the threat surveillance and sensor technology could pose to privacy rights.

Spurred by this summer’s Olympics, on Sept. 3, forum panelists will discuss how rapid advances in pharmacology and technology could offer new means of enhancing athletic performance. If it’s possible to ditch years of training in exchange for drugs or genetic changes, would the wins justify the means? And how might scientific advances challenge society to redefine what it means to be human?

What kinds of new means of enhancing human performance have developed in the last decide or so?

Performance enhancement in athletics is nothing new. Some methods have been around for years, continue to be improved, and remain perfectly acceptable to nearly everyone. We are all familiar with the importance of training to optimize mental and physical conditioning. We are comfortable with scientists helping athletes to choose better training strategies, to improve their diets, or even to make the best possible choices about what times of day to eat or drink.

Our comfort with enhancing performance with drugs becomes more difficult. On the one hand, few people would question the wisdom of an athlete being treated with an antibiotic for an infection. But what about using medications to treat the symptoms of a cold? And if that’s OK, then what do we do about the fact that some of those medications might also give an athlete an edge in competition. If that’s acceptable for an athlete who has a cold, then why not someone who is healthy?

In all cases, the goal is simple: to perform better. The science of performance enhancement is ongoing and developing sufficiently fast that drug testing programs are in a constant struggle to keep up with the latest changes. Both scientists and athletes are anxious to find new ways to enhance performance, not first to avoid detection, but to simply perform better. To achieve that goal, every avenue of scientific inquiry becomes a possible new tool for enhancing human performance.

Tell me about genetic changes and how they might be substituted for training.

Certainly, new drugs are always on the horizon, but now there is good reason to believe that scientists and athletes might turn to a very different approach: gene treatments or gene doping. Although the technology is still at an early stage in development, it is theoretically possible that we will soon be seeing cases where athletes have not been given a drug to enhance performance. Instead, we may see examples in which someone has a new or changed gene inserted into their body. The result could be the production of proteins that are important for helping build strength or increase endurance.

There’s been a lot of talk about gene doping this Olympic season and one of the panelists in September is Theodore Friedmann, chairman of the Gene Doping Panel for the World Anti-Doping Agency. What’s all the fuss about?

The discussion about doping may not be significantly more this year than in past years, but it’s clear that the public’s awareness has been increased by repeated cases of athletes having been banned from competition or stripped of awards based on having failed or repeatedly missed drug tests. We presumably care because it violates our sense of fairness. We would like to think that the playing field is even, but it’s clearly not always the case.

How are new drugs and gene doping potentially changing the definition of what it means to be human?

I think I’ll pass on this question for now. At one level, everything that we are doing and that we are changing is precisely what makes us human. If so, then the fact that we are changing ourselves does not change what it means to be human, it is simply being human.

What kinds of questions should we, the general public, be asking or thinking about surrounding drugs, genetics and athletic performance?

The various stories we are hearing about performance enhancement in the Olympics and in sports in general may at first seem relatively unimportant. The questions we might ask can be as simple as “Is it OK for anyone to use any methods they want, as long as all competitors have the same options available to them?” or “Should we have separate competitions for those who use certain performance enhancing strategies that are otherwise prohibited?” or “Is it fair that some people are prohibited from competing not because they used illegal performance enhancing methods, but because they used methods that allowed them to get caught?”

These are all interesting questions, but they are only the tip of the iceberg for our society. Performance enhancement is not only an issue in sports. It’s potentially an issue in every arena of life. What about students who might use legal or illegal stimulants that help them to learn more or more efficiently? What about workers who use legal or illegal medications that allow them to work longer hours and to be more productive? Who will have access to these performance enhancing agents that have the potential to perform better than those who do not have access? Are these agents as useful as they claim, or to what extent are the effects only psychological? And in all cases, what do we know or not know about the safety of these performance enhancing strategies?

How do you envision the future of competitive athletics?

I feel least qualified to answer this question. This is really something that will have to be decided through discussion that involves athletes, regulators of sports and the public. The one certain issue is that we need to have those public conversations to help us all clarify what is and is not acceptable, and to decide what we can and cannot do to deal with our concerns.

— Interview by Darryn Bennett

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