"The hope is that one will be able to identify signatures of changes, much like signs of cancer," Friedmann notes. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is developing a similar pilot program called Project Believe that will administer rigorous blood and urine tests to a dozen volunteer athletes to build a set of baseline profiles.
The fact is that if athletes are abusing gene therapy now and getting away with it, they're probably not getting much out of it. Gene therapies, Sweeney says, are not particularly effective yet because no one has found a way to get the foreign genes safely past the body's discerning immune system. In other words, it destroys the genes before they can do their job; in some cases, the body's reaction to them goes haywire and sickens, or even kills, patients.
But if Sweeney has anything to say about it, scientists will soon overcome these hurdles, so to speak. "And the minute that somebody actually can provide gene therapy with a half a chance of working, there'll be a line at the door," he says.