Moullier had shown it was possible to produce artificially one particular gene – the erythropoietin gene – and introduce it into the body. And as anyone who had a vague brush with professional cycling in the 90s knows, the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO – which controls the production of red blood cells – was the illicit dope of choice for competitors. It was the wonder drug Lance Armstrong kept in his fridge, to boost his oxygen-carrying red-blood-cell count.
But while injected EPO has been detectable for years, introducing the EPO gene would result in the body producing its own EPO. Could this be an undetectable way of improving oxygen delivery?
Shortly after Philippe Moullier published his paper, a bunch of visitors turned up to his laboratory in Nantes. They explained that they had been professional cyclists, had competed in the Tour de France, and were now part of an association fighting doping. At first Moullier says he was keen to share the science. He ended up feeling rather alarmed.
“They were very excited. They told me that even though the technology was still at the research level, if it was accessible to the cyclists it would likely be used. I was completely shocked and surprised.” Moullier says he warned that there was no way in which the therapy could, at that stage, be used safely. He was met with a collective shrug. His visitors, he suspected, were hiding their real motives.
“They didn’t seem to care, it didn’t seem to be a problem for them. The competition is so high, those guys are ready to do anything to make the difference.”
And while making a permanent change to the genome may be complex – using a disabled virus to carry the genetic medicine to the cells – Philippe Moullier says there is now a shortcut, which delivers temporary results: injecting the purified gene directly into your muscle.
In the years since he was visited by the ex-cyclists it has become possible for anyone to get hold of the EPO gene on the internet.