Tugging at the public’s heart strings-and wallets!

kids runningAfter the mad rush of the holiday season, I found a little time to catch up on reading, and stumbled across an astounding article in the NYtimes: New Genetic Test Asks Which Sport a Child was Born to Play, by Juliet Macur.

A company called ATLAS (Athletic Talent Laboratory Analysis System) is offering a genetic test for kids which they claim will determine if your child is likely to be a super-athlete.  Furthermore, they say it can tell you what type of a super-athlete your child may become, i.e., a sprinter or a weightlifter, so that you can begin preparations and training sessions for your child as early as one year old.

This test is based on genotyping for an isoform of the muscle protein actinin, ACTN3.

Actinins are an important family of actin-binding proteins.

Well, since I am a mom of a seven year old and a scientist that has spent more than fifteen years doing basic muscle research, this really caught my attention. My first thoughts were that this was morally appalling and scientifically impossible. All that I had learned and studied about muscle had led me to believe that muscles just don’t work that way.

No doubt that the actinins are crucial to muscle function, but I thought that one muscle protein couldn’t do all of that. My off-the-cuff guess would be that at least 200 genes would contribute to such traits, and probably half would encode non-muscle proteins (genes related to drive, metabolism and many other factors would seem likely to be involved equally here). I wondered if I had missed some major development in the muscle field while enjoying motherhood, and if this kind of trend may be soon be followed up by a single gene test for IQ in your six month old, for example. Certainly all of us parents want our children to reach their full potential, but I needed to check into this further to see if this genetic test was hype or based on sound science.  

My first stop was to check out the ATLAS website. In bright bold letters you see “Finding any great Olympic champion normally takes years to determine. What if we knew a part of the answer when we were born?” And there are three beautiful young children smiling at you in soccer uniforms. The four products offered are all are based on same ACTN3 genetic test, but they differed by the additional “tools” offered and the price. You can get the basic genetic test, recommended for ages one and up, for $149.00, and they even add height/weight charts, and some BMI information. Add another $100 or so and you get the ATLAS plus (for ages seven and up, i.e, “for the needs of the pre-pubescent athlete”), that also includes a vertical and broad jump chart to measure power. If you are willing to spend about $1000 for the ATLAS Pro package, you can get an electronic timer with your genetic test and charts. This is geared towards athletes over ten years old. Atlas Research is the last of the products, requires a “call for price”, and is aimed towards the researcher who wants to use their patented ACTN3 analysis system. Quite an array of products, but is the genetic test really predictive of athletic prowess? 

 It took no more than a couple of minutes to confirm my initial suspicion that the science behind this ATLAS genetic test is not what it is advertised to be. There is an excellent post written by Dr. Daniel MacArthur, one of the original authors of the ACTN3 study that this test is based on. He does a great job breaking down the “facts” behind this test into sections, and provides succinct scientific explanations to support his conclusions. He states that ACTN3 is only one of many factors influencing athletic performance, that ACTN3 doesn’t tell you if your child will be a super-athlete or not, and that there is no evidence that this type of testing is any more predictive than raw talent tests. In fact, one article said to simply line your kids up and see how fast they run, and you will get just as much information as this test provides. This story reminded me of not too long ago when the creatine supplement craze was popular as a way to build muscle. Many of us in the muscle field spent much time at parties and elsewhere explaining how you couldn’t just add one component of an entire pathway and expect it to work better. Hopefully that craze has seen its better days, but this new genetic testing aimed at parents of young children, and based on single gene analysis for traits not shown to be regulated by only a single gene, is probably only the tip of the iceberg.  

Policy makers definitely need our help. Commenting on some of these personal genomics issues is only one small way we may be able to make a difference in our community. Just recently there was an editorial in Science magazine (the Dec 5, 2008 issue) by Dr. Bruce Alberts, entitled “A Scientific Approach to Policy”. He so nicely summarized what makes scientists uniquely qualified to become involved in policy decisions. First and foremost, we are an optimistic bunch that sees problems as solvable. Secondly, we are trained to focus on the long-term outcome, and not to be short-sited when forecasting the future and providing advice. Scientists are accustomed to testing ideas by collecting evidence, not on pre-conceived notions – even if they are dear to our hearts. And we are able to deal with complicated, dynamic systems using an experimental approach. Here we have seen that Daniel MacArthur stepped up to the plate as an expert scientist in this field to debunk the validity of this test. But what about the next one? If it was YOUR special subject area would you go out of your way to help the public interpret this genetic test? This particular test may be transparent enough for the public to see through, but there will probably be others arriving at warp speed soon. Perhaps some of us can offer advice to those who simply aren’t sure. It seems apparent that the regulation of these tests is probably going to lag behind for quite some time. At most we may see only assurances that they are safe-and obviously no one is going to be harmed by a DNA cheek swab. But effective and informative-that needs comments by trained scientists. The perfect media exists for getting your opinion out there in this era of google and blogs.  

Quackwatch logo There is a great website called Quackwatchthat was developed to help the public interpret many types of medically-related claims. Biotechniques highlights it here, and appropriately labels it “a not-for-profit breath of fresh air for medical information”.  Quackwatch was developed by Dr. Stephen Barrett, and it is affiliated with both the National Council Against Health Fraud and Bioethics Watch. You find a variety of information in its “Questionable Products, Services and Theories” section with topics like Chelation Therapy, Ionic Cleansing, Dietary Supplements, Power Lines and Cancer, and many more. There are also 21 affiliated sites that you can link to if you are looking for specific information in areas like autism, acupuncture, dentistry and mental health, to name only a few. Dr. Barrett does such an impressive job with this website-please do check it out. It is such a big step in the right direction. We all need to rise to the occasion to help the general public and policy makers understand the wide variety of direct consumer genetic testing that is coming our way.

I think it is our responsibility as scientists to help educate the public. Whatever your area – understanding genetic testing, or teaching how to use public databases to acquire and analyze information (as is our forte at OH) – it is in your best interest to invest effort – be it at a party or in a blog post – to educate the public. In the end, your funding, your future, and the health and well-being of your family depend on an understanding and an appreciation of science.

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