London, June 2 : Scientists are taking mice with them on a trip to Mount Everest, hoping to find the natural biochemical changes that take place at high altitude, which could lead to a test for athletes who have had their genes manipulated.
According to a report in New Scientist, high-altitude training benefits athletes by stimulating production of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that allows blood to carry more oxygen.
Yet it is possible to cheat by artificially boosting EPO levels, either by taking supplements or maybe by manipulating athletes' genes.
While today's tests can identify athletes who have taken artificial EPO, they cannot distinguish between EPO occurring naturally and as a result of gene interference.
"Gene doping isn't yet in widespread use but it is important for those involved in anti-doping to stay one step ahead," said a spokesman for the anti-doping authority UK Sport.
The scientists who have started ascending Mount Everest with the mice in tow are Tejvir Khurana and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, US.
They hope to find molecular "signatures" in the mice's tissue and blood that are only present if EPO is produced in the normal way.
If present in humans, such markers could help develop a gene-doping test.
"The practical challenges they will face are fascinating," said Mike Grocott, an expert in extreme-environment physiology at University College London. "Parts of the ascent are technically difficult, particularly if you are carrying a mouse," he added.