Forget the Olympics – Here come the superhuman games for genetically enhanced athletes
- GM athletes could get their own events
- Scientists say they could be treated ‘like racing cars’
- Power running, swimming and climbing could be first disciplines
PUBLISHED: 18:01 GMT, 19 July 2012 | UPDATED: 18:01 GMT, 19 July 2012
Superhuman athletes created by gene therapy and biomechanical engineering will one day be competing at the Olympics – but will need their own events, predict scientists.
Performance-enhancing technologies will advance to a point where they will not only extend human limits – but demand a events all of their own, similar to the Formula One version of car racing.
Professor Hugh Herr of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology said: ‘For each one there will be a new sport – power running and power swimming and power climbing.
‘Just like the invention of the bicycle led to the sport of cycling. What we’ll see is the emergence of all kinds of new sports.’
Mechanical prosthetics will become much more proficient than the ‘cheetah-style’ legs used by amputees including Oscar Pistorius from South Africa.
The Paralympic gold medallist has now been approved to run in the London 2012 Olympics even though his prosthetics lack the stiffness of a human ankle and can’t generate the same forces.
Prof Herr’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is currently working on a bionic running leg.
The biomechanical engineer told Nature: ‘Stepping decades into the future, I think one day the field will produce a bionic limb that’s so sophisticated it truly emulates biological limb function.
‘That technology will be the Olympic sanctioned limb. Without any such human-like constraints the Paralympics limb will become the basis of this human-machine sport like race car driving.’
If all restrictions were lifted science could push human performance to new extremes – although drugs are not the only answer, say researchers.
Some say enhancers have become so prevalent the only solution is to allow anything – as long as it is safe.
But surgery and, ultimately, technological augmentations could also help athletes towards the podium.
Baseball pitchers who have undergone surgery to replace a damaged elbow ligament with tissue from a hamstring or forearm tendon claim that they can throw harder after the two-year rehabilitation process.
Dr Andy Miah, a bioethecist at West of Scotland University in Ayr, sees potential in more imaginative surgical enhancement.
He said: ‘Consider using skin grafts to increase webbing between fingers and toes to improve swimming capacity.
‘These kinds of tweaks to our biology are likely ways people would try to gain an edge over others.’
Advances in gene therapy could make it possible for any athlete to enhance their DNA.
In experiments aimed at treating muscular dystrophy in the elderly researchers at Pennsylvania University introduced a gene to cause over-expression of the growth hormone IGF1 in mice.
The treatment boosted muscle strength of young adult mice by 14 percent – earning the rodents the nickname ‘mighty mice.’
Another frontier is nanotechnology with researchers already experimenting with blood supplements based on oxygen-carrying particles for use in emergency situations.
Dr Miah said: ‘There is a lot of discussion about the possibility of biologically infused nanodevices that could perpetually maintain certain thresholds of performance.’
Future Olympic Games could allow handicaps and gene therapy for people who naturally lack genes linked to athleticism as evidence grows that world-class athletes carry a minimum set of particular ‘performance-enhancing’ genes.
Science authors Dr Juan Enriquez and Dr Steve Gullans, of Excel Venture Management, Boston, said: ‘Genetically enhanced Olympics are coming.’