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Evidence Is Weak for Genetic Testing of Sporting Talent

No child or young athlete should be subjected to genetic testing for sporting talent or to boost performance, according to a consensus statement published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (tinyurl.com/pbynzkn).

The scientific evidence for the effectiveness of these commercial tests is simply far too weak to back their use, said the international panel of 22 experts in the fields of genomics, exercise, sports performance, disease, injury and anti-doping.

However, this lack of evidence has not hindered the growth of DIY genetic tests, which claim to be able to spot children’s athletic talent or tailor training to maximise performance. This burgeoning market has prompted fears that the current limited level of knowledge on the genetics of sports performance is being misrepresented for commercial gain, the statement says.

The panel found 39 companies marketing tests associated with sport or exercise performance or injury. In 2013 a similar review found 22, but 14 of these have ceased trading, meaning that 25 new companies have entered the market within the past 2 years.

Claims included: “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”.

For 21 of the companies the panel could not find out which gene sequences and variants would be tested because this information wasn’t provided. For the remainder, the average number of variants tested was six, but ranged from one to 27.

The most popular genetic variants tested were ACTN3 R577X and ACE I/D, both of which have been relatively well studied. While there is some evidence to suggest a link with enhanced physical performance, it is very weak, rendering the predictive value of these tests “virtually zero” according to the statement.

Of further concern is that several companies use the results to market additional products, such as training advice and nutritional supplements, for which the evidence is again limited.

The statement emphasises that the speed of change in gene sequencing technology has far outpaced regulation or universally accepted guidelines. Indeed, legislation varies widely among countries and is non-existent in some.

The panel points out the importance of counselling before any genetic test is taken, particularly as this may have implications for health or life insurance. Furthermore, 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 these data when one of these companies ceases trading.

“While further evidence will undoubtedly emerge around the genetics of sport performance in the future, the data are currently very limited,” the consensus statement says. “Consequently, in the current state of knowledge, no child or young athlete should be exposed to genetic testing to define or alter training or for talent identification aimed at selecting gifted children or adolescents,” it concludes.