Breakthrough could help those with muscle-wasting diseases, but researchers warn sports bodies to be vigilant

In news that will be eagerly digested by some coaches and trainers seeking to ensure that the athletes in their care receive the best possible preparation to give them a competitive edge over their rivals, scientists have succeeded in developing worms and mice endowed with exceptional levels of strength and endurance by managing to suppress a naturally-occurring growth inhibitor.

According to Science Daily, the breakthrough could lead to new treatments for genetic or age-related conditions that lead to degeneration of the muscles, although from a sporting perspective, the potential to usher in a new form of cheating is obvious, and the scientists involved have warned sporting bodies to be on their guard.

The research was conducted through a partnership between the San Diego-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne.

In the course of the research, published in the journal Cell, it was found that muscle strength may be governed by an inhibitor known as NCoR1, the suppression of which could change the way in which certain genes behaved could be altered.

Experiments were carried out on both mice and nematodes, a type of worm of which more than 28,000 separate species have so far been discovered. By suppressing NCoR1, which acts to inhibit muscle growth, they found that mice could run faster and for up to twice the distance of mice that had not had the inhibitor suppressed before tiring.

"There are now ways to develop drugs for people who are unable to exercise due to obesity or other health complications, such as diabetes, immobility and frailty," said Professor Ronald M. Evans of Salk's Gene Expression Lab.

"We can now engineer specific gene networks in muscle to give the benefits of exercise to sedentary mice."

With similar results also observed among nematodes, the study’s authors believe that their findings could have applications among a range of living creatures, including human beings.

Professor Johan Auwerx of EPFL, who was the lead author of the study, outlined some of the potential benefits that could arise from the breakthrough.

"This could be used to combat muscle weakness in the elderly, which leads to falls and contributes to hospitalizations," he explained. "In addition, we think that this could be used as a basis for developing a treatment for genetic muscular dystrophy."

He is all too aware, however, that the discovery could have other applications beyond treating patients suffering from degenerative conditions, issuing the warning that "It will be important for anti-doping authorities to monitor that these treatments are not used in an unauthorised manner."

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.