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New Test can Detect Presence of Gene Doping in Equines

New Test can Detect Presence of Gene Doping in Equines

By Hannah Kleckner Hall

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) have successfully developed a new test to systemically detect the local administration of illicit, gene doping therapies in equine athletes. The findings from the novel study, supported in part by the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association (PHBA) and the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission, are a significant breakthrough in the collective fight to advance the welfare and integrity of sport for both horses and humans.

Unlike other small molecule pharmaceuticals, gene doping agents trigger cells to produce performance enhancing proteins. These proteins, which often are more elusive due to their virtually indistinguishable characteristics from naturally occurring proteins within the body, can make it more difficult to determine whether or not an animal or human has had gene therapy administered. Until now, that is.
 
Led by Mary Robinson, Ph.D., VMD, DACVCP, assistant professor of Veterinary Pharmacology and director of the Equine Pharmacology Laboratory at Penn Vet's New Bolton Center, the team of Penn Vet researchers have created and validated a quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction test—commonly known as a PCR test—that is able to detect the presence of a gene doping agent in plasma and synovial fluid after its intra-articular administration in horses.
 
"For the first time, we have demonstrated that a PCR test performed on a blood sample can detect the local administration of a gene therapy into the joint of a horse," said Robinson. "While this test is currently limited in that it can only detect a specific gene therapy, it provides proof of concept that a gene therapy administered into the joint can be detected in a blood sample in a manner that is quick, convenient, and consistent with our long-term goal of deploying pre-race testing someday in the future," she added.
 
Not only were the Penn Vet researchers able to detect the presence of this product in equine joint fluid after gene therapy was administered intra-articularly, they were also able to detect it in blood for up to 28 days. This represents a significantly robust window of time that could be useful for pre-race as well as out of competition testing.
 
"The ability to detect the presence of these gene doping agents in blood after local administration to joints just magnifies the implications of this game-changing development," said Joanne Haughan, Mag.med.vet, one of the lead investigators on the study. "The science is closing in on those who seek to use these advancements for wrongful means; the more we learn with each study, the harder it will be for individuals who seek to cheat the system using gene doping strategies."
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