11/25/2008 1:00AM

Genetic tinkering hardly laughable


Major news stories in the last week about formal tests studying effects of Viagra on athletes, and the scientific possibility of re-creating wooly mammoths from the DNA of species now extinct but alive 60,000 years ago, brought the expected round of smirks, snickers, and sub rosa jokes.

The news stories were not intended as humor, and they were not funny. They did not deal with horse racing, but they were read with interest by some in the sport, including some unconcerned about negative effects on the horse. Others, more sophisticated, may be concerned, but understand the potential results of gene doping. All they need to know is that American scientists have modified genes to produce the "Schwarzenegger mouse," a lab creature of immensely greater strength and endurance than the garden variety.

Viagra already has been used on racehorses, not by scientists but by a few beat-the-curve experimenting trainers who will try anything - Clorox included - if they think it will move up a horse. As Dr. Anthony Butch, director of UCLA's Olympic drug-testing lab, noted, "Some athletes do not need proof - only a belief - that a drug works before using it." Ditto edge-seeking trainers.

Before being shocked or shaken, consider the testimony of professor Arne Ljungqvist of the world-famed Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Sweden's best known anti-doping expert, he is chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency's Health, Medical, and Research Committee.

"We have seen an interest among individuals who contact gene researchers for the purpose of doping in sport," Ljungqvist says, adding, "This is a disturbing trend because not only is gene doping in sport wrong, it also can be extremely dangerous."

Or listen to Toronto's Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency: "Gene doping represents a serious threat to the integrity of sport and the health of athletes."

Pound is presiding over the agency's second symposium on gene doping, scheduled for next week in Stockholm. Theodore Friedman, the American scientist who chairs the Gene Doping Panel and will kick off the symposium, says, "Gene doping will in all likelihood soon be with us, and I would not be surprised if the first tentative steps had already been taken." He warned of the dangers, saying people are taking "immense risks" and that there have been at least two deaths during experimentation and two cases of leukemia. "The seriously ill can take such a risk, perhaps," professor Friedman says, "but for young, healthy sportsmen and women, it is completely unacceptable."

Or, without him even having to say it, its use in racehorses is equally unacceptable.

To preclude the possibility of edge-seekers learning the easy way, the Stockholm symposium is by invitation only, and closed to media except for two press conferences, one a week from Saturday and the other a week from Monday.

The first will deal with issues raised since the World Anti-Doping Agency's first symposium, in New York six years ago.

The second, on Dec. 5, to be held at the Nobel Forum at Karolinska, will have leaders of the symposium present findings of this year's gathering.

So who will be invited?

Fifty leading researchers in the field of gene technology. Their specialty already has become widely used in injury and disease, but its darker side - genetic modification to enhance athletic ability, by humans or horses - is their concern at this meeting.

By coincidence, as the anti-doping symposium ends in Stockholm, the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Symposium gets under way in Tucson.

The prospect of re-creating mammoths, extinct for 10,000 years since the last Ice Age, will be touched on in Tucson, if at all, only in bars at the luxurious Westin La Paloma hotel where the symposium now is held. Since the mammoths' genes differ from the African elephant today at some 400,000 sites on its genome, the talk should be brief.

There is a second aspect of the big genome project, however. The genome of the modern chimpanzee is 98 percent similar to that of you and me, and could progressively be modified until close enough to Neanderthal man, gone for 45,000 years, and brought to term in an embryo carried by a chimp.

Now there is a profound prospect for discussion. A real, honest genetic Neanderthal.

Just think. We could replace all those cheap imitations walking around today, pumping stuff in their horses, willy-nilly, without any idea of what it might do to the horse long-term.

Even original Neanderthals would not be that stupid.

Bring 'em back.