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Skeptics Warn Of Gene Tests For Future Athletes

March 9, 2011

According to a new survey, some customers say that genetic test results help them steer their children to appropriate sports.

However, skeptical doctors and ethicists say that the tests are putting profit before science and have a much greater price tag that could potentially rob perfectly capable youngsters of a chance to enjoy activities of their choice.

“In the ‘winning is everything’ sports culture, societal pressure to use these tests in children may increasingly present a challenge to unsuspecting physicians,” according to a commentary in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Scientists have identified several genes that may play a role in helping to determine strength, speed and other aspects of athletic performance.  However, Dr. Alison Brooks, a pediatrician and sports medicine specialists at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, told The Associated Press (AP) that there are likely hundreds more, plus many other traits and experiences that help determine athletic ability.

Brooks and University of Michigan physician Dr. Beth Tarini wrote the commentary to raise awareness about the issue.

A handful of companies are selling these tests online, and in some cases they screen for genes that are common even among non-athletes.  Brooks told AP that as science advances, “My guess is we’re going to see more of this, not less.”

Bradley Marston of Bountiful, Utah, bought a test online a year ago for his daughter Elizabeth.

She is “a very talented soccer player,” and Marston wanted to know if she had a variation of a gene called ACTN3, which influences production of a protein involved in certain muscle activity.

One form of the gene has been linked with explosive bursts of strength needed for activities like sprinting and weight lifting.

The ACTN3 test is sold by Atlas Sports Genetics and was developed by Genetic Technologies Limited.  Atlas’ $169 kit consists of two swabs to scrape cells from the inside of the cheek.

Nat Carruthers, operations president for Atlas Sports Genetics, told AP that the company has sold several hundred test kits since it began marketing them in 2008.

“Our goal is to help people become the athlete they were born to be,” not to exclude kids from certain sports, Carruthers said.

He told AP that critics have misrepresented the test “to sound like we’re telling parents what their kid should do and how good their kid will be. That’s not at all our claim or desire.”

CyGene Laboratories sold a similar $100 swab test online for different sports-related genes until last fall.

CyGene also sold kits online advertised as testing for human disease, but Mark Munzer, the company’s former president, told AP that the industry is reeling from a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) crackdown last year on efforts to sell disease-related gene tests in retail pharmacies.

The FDA scheduled a hearing on Tuesday to receive feedback from an expert panel on how the agency should be regulating direct-to-consumer genetic tests that make medical claims.

University of Maryland researcher Stephen Roth, a specialist in exercise physiology and genetics who has studied the ACTN3 gene, told AP that the science of how genes influence athletic ability “is in its infancy” and that marketers’ claims are based on “gross assumptions.”

Roth said about 80 percent of people around the world have the ACTN3 gene that has been linked with explosive force.  The fact that few of them become elite athletes underscores that it takes more than genes to make athletes.

About 20 percent of people have a gene variation that inhibits production of the protein involved in explosive force.  Roth said that does not mean they cannot excel in sports.

Dr. Lainie Friedman Ross, a medical ethicist and pediatrician at the University of Chicago, told AP that the tests raise ethical questions when used in children because they are too young to understand the possible ramifications and to give adequate consent.

“This is recreational genetics with a real serious potential for harm,” Ross said. “People are going to think, `If my kid has this, I’m going to have to push real hard. If my kid doesn’t have it, I’m going to give up before I start,” she said. Instead, Ross said, parents should “let kids follow their dreams.”

“While parents have the authority to make health care decisions about their children, this type of genetic testing is elective at best and should actively involve the children in the decision-making process,” Ross said.

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