Could gene tests tell if kids can be sports stars?

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 2:37 PM

CHICAGO -- Was your kid born to be an elite athlete? Marketers of genetic tests claim the answer is in mail-order kits costing less than $200.

Some customers say the test results help them steer their children to appropriate sports. But skeptical doctors and ethicists say the tests are putting profit before science and have a much greater price tag - potentially robbing 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.

Scientists have identified several genes that may play a role in determining strength, speed and other aspects of athletic performance. But there are likely hundreds more, plus many other traits and experiences that help determine athletic ability, said Dr. Alison Brooks, a pediatrician and sports medicine specialist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

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. In some cases, the tests screen for genes that are common even among non-athletes. As science advances, Brooks said, "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, then 9.

She's "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 such as sprinting and weight lifting.

The ACTN3 test sold by Atlas Sports Genetics was developed by Genetic Technologies Limited, an Australian firm. Atlas' $169 kit consists of two swabs to scrape cells from the inside of the cheek. Customers return the used swabs to the Boulder, Colo., company and receive an analysis several days later.

Elizabeth Marston's test showed she has a sprinting-related gene form - results her father hopes will help her get into elite sports programs or win a sports scholarship to college.

Marston said he ordered the test partly out of curiosity, but approached it cautiously and talked with Elizabeth to make sure she could handle it.

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