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Old 11-30-2008, 02:36 AM   #1
nojobny
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Default Born to Run? Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene

Born to Run? Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene


DNA collected by swabbing the inside of a cheek can be used to determine whether a child is likely to excel at a particular sport.

By JULIET MACUR
BOULDER, Colo. — When Donna Campiglia learned recently that a genetic test might be able to determine which sports suit the talents of her 2 ˝-year-old son, Noah, she instantly said, Where can I get it and how much does it cost?

“I could see how some people might think the test would pigeonhole your child into doing fewer sports or being exposed to fewer things, but I still think it’s good to match them with the right activity,” Ms. Campiglia, 36, said as she watched a toddler class at Boulder Indoor Soccer in which Noah struggled to take direction from the coach between juice and potty breaks.

“I think it would prevent a lot of parental frustration,” she said.

In health-conscious, sports-oriented Boulder, Atlas Sports Genetics is playing into the obsessions of parents by offering a $149 test that aims to predict a child’s natural athletic strengths. The process is simple. Swab inside the child’s cheek and along the gums to collect DNA and return it to a lab for analysis of ACTN3, one gene among more than 20,000 in the human genome.

The test’s goal is to determine whether a person would be best at speed and power sports like sprinting or football, or endurance sports like distance running, or a combination of the two. A 2003 study discovered the link between ACTN3 and those athletic abilities.

In this era of genetic testing, DNA is being analyzed to determine predispositions to disease, but experts raise serious questions about marketing it as a first step in finding a child’s sports niche, which some parents consider the road to a college scholarship or a career as a professional athlete.

Atlas executives acknowledge that their test has limitations but say that it could provide guidelines for placing youngsters in sports. The company is focused on testing children from infancy to about 8 years old because physical tests to gauge future sports performance at that age are, at best, unreliable.

Some experts say ACTN3 testing is in its infancy and virtually useless. Dr. Theodore Friedmann, the director of the University of California-San Diego Medical Center’s interdepartmental gene therapy program, called it “an opportunity to sell new versions of snake oil.”

“This may or may not be quite that venal, but I would like to see a lot more research done before it is offered to the general public,” he said. “I don’t deny that these genes have a role in athletic success, but it’s not that black and white.”

Dr. Stephen M. Roth, director of the functional genomics laboratory at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health who has studied ACTN3, said he thought the test would become popular. But he had reservations.

“The idea that it will be one or two genes that are contributing to the Michael Phelpses or the Usain Bolts of the world I think is shortsighted because it’s much more complex than that,” he said, adding that athletic performance has been found to be affected by at least 200 genes.

Dr. Roth called ACTN3 “one of the most exciting and eyebrow-raising genes out there in the sports-performance arena,” but he said that any test for the gene would be best used only on top athletes looking to tailor workouts to their body types.

“It seems to be important at very elite levels of competition,” Dr. Roth said. “But is it going to affect little Johnny when he participates in soccer, or Suzy’s ability to perform sixth grade track and field? There’s very little evidence to suggest that.”

The study that identified the connection between ACTN3 and elite athletic performance was published in 2003 by researchers primarily based in Australia.

Those scientists looked at the gene’s combinations, one copy provided by each parent. The R variant of ACTN3 instructs the body to produce a protein, alpha-actinin-3, found specifically in fast-twitch muscles. Those muscles are capable of the forceful, quick contractions necessary in speed and power sports. The X variant prevents production of the protein.

The ACTN3 study looked at 429 elite white athletes, including 50 Olympians, and found that 50 percent of the 107 sprint athletes had two copies of the R variant. Even more telling, no female elite sprinter had two copies of the X variant. All male Olympians in power sports had at least one copy of the R variant.

Conversely, nearly 25 percent of the elite endurance athletes had two copies of the X variant — only slightly higher than the control group at 18 percent. That means people with two X copies are more likely to be suited for endurance sports.

Still, some athletes prove science, and seemingly their genetics, wrong. Research on an Olympic long jumper from Spain showed that he had no copies of the R variant, indicating that athletic success is probably affected by a combination of genes as well as factors like environment, training, nutrition and luck.



“Just think if that Spanish kid’s parents had done the test and said, ‘No, your genes show that you are going to be a bad long jumper, so we are going to make you a golfer,’ ” said Carl Foster, a co-author of the study, who is the director of the human performance laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “Now look at him. He’s the springiest guy in Spain. He’s Tigger. We don’t yet understand what combination of genes creates that kind of explosiveness.”

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