Kids must not be genetically tested to spot sporting talent, warns Man Met Uni expert

Genetic testing has ‘no place’ in spotting young sporting talent or boosting sports performance, warns a Manchester Metropolitan University lecturer.

Dr Alun Williams, who specialises in sport and exercise genomics, was part of an international panel who contributed towards a consensus statement published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The statement has been produced by a panel of 22 experts and examines genetic testing for predicting sports performance and talent identification.

The report concludes that no child or young athlete should be the subject of genetic testing in order to spot sporting talent and that the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of these commercial tests is simply far too weak to back their use.

“Right now there’s far more that we don’t know about the genetics of sports performance compared to what we do know,” Dr Williams told MM.

“Basing important decisions about a young athlete’s future sports participation or their training programme on this limited information is not justified at all given our current level of knowledge.

“And could in fact deny young athletes the opportunity to enjoy and possibly be successful at a particular sport.”

The ability to interpret the meaning of genetic test results is still at a relatively early stage, says the panel.

But that hasn’t hindered the growth of DIY ‘direct to consumer’ genetic tests, which claim to be able to talent spot children’s athletic prowess or tailor training to maximise performance.

This burgeoning market has prompted fears that the limited level of knowledge on the genetics of sports performance is being misrepresented for commercial gain.

“While further evidence will undoubtedly emerge around the genetics of sport performance in the future, the data are currently very limited,” says the consensus statement.

“Consequently, in the current state of knowledge, no child or young athlete should be exposed to [direct to consumer] genetic testing to define or alter training or for talent identification aimed at selecting gifted children or adolescents,” it concludes.

In conducting their research the panel looked at the availability of DIY genetic tests and found 39 companies marketing tests associated with sport or exercise performance or injury—almost twice as many as in 2013, when a similar review found 22.

Since 2013, 14 of those 22 companies have ceased trading, whilst 25 new companies have entered the market.

These companies use claims including ‘personalise your training based on your sports genetics,’  ‘gives parents and coaches early information on their child’s genetic predisposition for success in team or individual speed/power or endurance sports,’ and ‘we use your DNA results to help you lose fat, get lean, build muscle, get fitter.’

However the panel concluded that whilst there’s some evidence to suggest a link between genetic variants and enhanced physical performance, the evidence is so weak that the predictive value of these tests is ‘virtually zero.’

The panel emphasised that the ability to analyse DNA has far outpaced regulation, or any universally accepted guidelines.

And legislation varies widely among countries—the UK currently has no legislation which means that genetic tests can be sold with little or no knowledge about them.

One of the concerns is that the sensitive nature of an individual’s genetic information should be subject to the highest level of security and confidentiality, but it is not at all clear what happens to the data when one of these company goes under.

Dr Williams says that even if the test results are themselves correct, they often seem to be over-interpreted – reaching conclusions which are impossible to derive from the result of a genetic test.

He is also concerned that potentially significant genetic information related to disease risks such as Alzheimer’s is given to individuals with no counselling or even recognition that it could be significant.

The panel highlights the importance of seeking counselling as genetic tests may have implications for health or life insurance —but this is not part of the package offered with these tests.

The full article ‘Direct-to-consumer genetic testing for predicting sports performance and talent identification: Consensus statement’ is available on the British Journal of Sports Medicine website.

Image courtesy of Mike Neilsen, with thanks.

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