Field of Science

Test your kids' genes for sports ability: hype or reality?

A company called Sports X Factor recently announced that it's selling a genetic test that will reveal your potential to be a sports star. They're marketing it as a way to predict what sports your kid will excel at. Is this real, or just another over-hyped attempt to cash in on parents' aspirations for their children?

Sports X Factor, which sells the test for $180, stated in a press release a few weeks ago that the test
"can make workouts more effective, children’s sports choices more appropriate and trainers’ awareness of potential risk factors more precise. It can even save a life."
Wow, sounds impressive. But is it true?

In some ways, this is nothing new. Another company, Atlas Sports Genetics, started offering a similar test in 2008. They make similar promises, claiming that their test
"Gives parents and coaches early information on their child’s genetic predisposition for success in team or individual speed/power or endurance sports."
Unlike some of the rank pseudoscience I often blog about, this claim actually has some real science behind it. Back in 2003, Kathryn North and colleagues at the University of Sydney published a paper in a leading genetics journal about a gene called ACTN3. They found that mutations in this gene were associated with elite sprinters, both male and female. Superficially, it's easy to take this association and turn it into a "speed gene," but it's not.

The science is much more nuanced. (Isn't it annoying when things aren't so simple?) ACTN3, which affects muscle fibers, has three common genotypes. Let's call them Red, White, and Blue.* Elite-level sprinters are usually Red or White: 92% of male sprinters and 100% of female sprinters in the original study were one of these. In the general population, 30% of people are Red and 52% are White. For elite endurance athletes, there tendency is the opposite: slightly more of them are Blue, but the difference isn't significant.

The advice from Atlas Sports Genetics is a gross over-generalization of the science. Here's how they interpret the test results:
Blue: Predisposition to endurance events
White: Equally suited for both endurance and sprint/power events
Red: Predisposition to sprint/power events
The science simply isn't this clear. The only thing you might say is that Blue genotypes are not likely to be Olympic sprinters. But that's true of 99.999% of us anyway. There's no "predisposition" to particular sports.

The newer test from Sports X Factor looks at 9 genes, not just ACTN3. Although a broader test might sound superior, the genes they test include ApoE4, which is associated with a slightly higher risk of Alzheimer's disease. This raises serious ethical questions. Do you really want your child to know that he/she might be pre-disposed to Alzheimer's? As Hank Greely, a Stanford lawyer and bioethicist, said in the Washington Post, “I think this company is a good advertisement for the need for more regulation of genomic testing,”

I suggest that parents save their money, and instead take a test that I'm offering right here, for free, to determine your child's sports potential. Just follow these two easy steps:
  1. Ask your child, "do you want to play soccer?"
  2. If the answer is yes, sign your child up for a kids' soccer team.
Wasn't that easy? And it works for almost any sport! Just replace "soccer" by your kid's favorite sport. Oh, and then you have to go to the games. That's the hard part.

*For science geeks only: the genotypes Red, White and Blue are RR, RX, and XX respectively. The mutation is R577X, where the X is mutation that introduces a premature stop codon at position 577 that shortens the ACTN3 protein. RR means that both copies of the protein are full-length. RX means one copy is shortened, and XX means both are. About 18% of the population is XX ("Blue").

Measles invades U.S.: anti-vaccine movement scores again


How can we keep unvaccinated people from bringing infectious diseases into the U.S.? These diseases are a real threat to public health, and while we're spending billions on national security, almost all that money goes towards "security theater," such as full-body scanning equipment at airports, which does almost nothing to protect the public. We'd be much better off spending those scarce funds on detecting infections at the border.

In the most recent invasion, the measles virus has snuck in thanks to a single unvaccinated student from Utah, who picked up the disease in Poland. The junior high student traveled to Poland with his family to pick up his sister, who was there as a Mormon missionary. As reported by the Associated Press, up to 1000 people have already been exposed, and the circle could easily spread beyond that.

Measles is a dangerous and incredibly infectious virus, transmitting easily between people. According to the CDC:
"About one out of 10 children with measles also gets an ear infection, and up to one out of 20 gets pneumonia. For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die."
This is not a disease to take lightly. Fortunately, the vaccine is highly effective, which means the real challenge is getting people to take it.

Utah requires measles vaccinations for public schools, but (as in many other states) parents can refuse vaccines for personal or religious reasons. California now has about 2% of parents refusing vaccines for their children for personal beliefs. This gaping hole in our public health system needs to be closed: if parents refuse to vaccinate their children, they are putting the rest of us at risk, and these children need to be kept out of public schools.

Most of the parents refusing vaccines for the children are doing so out of fear that vaccines cause harm. Despite countless studies showing that vaccines are safe (and in particular, that vaccines do not cause autism), these rumors persist, amplified greatly by the anti-vaccine movement, which seems impervious to evidence or reason.

Meanwhile, anti-vaccine groups such as Age of Autism are fighting to keep or even expand these exemptions. Other sites such as ThinkTwice.com http://www.thinktwice.com/laws.htm and Internet quacks Joseph Mercola and Sherri Tenpenny advise parents to refuse vaccination and use whatever loopholes they can to enroll their kids in school. Parents who follow this advice rely on the immunization of others to protect their own children, but they appear unconcerned about the risk they forcing on the rest of us. They also neglect to consider that vaccines are never 100% effective, so even those of us who vaccinate our kids are still bearing a greater risk by allowing the unvaccinated to attend school.

Europe has its own problems with vaccine coverage, and measles is spreading rapidly this year, having hit 24 countries so far. France had 3749 cases and one death in the first two months of this year. Many of the victims are children too young to be vaccinated, but the disease is often spread by people who simply refuse to get the vaccine.

The latest measles outbreak in Utah could have been avoided if the student involved had simply been vaccinated. Realistically, though, we will always have citizens traveling abroad and bringing infectious diseases back. If the U.S. really wants to use its security dollars wisely, we should implement greater screening at the border to keep these disesases out. We could start by telling people to get vaccinated before they leave the country. If they refuse, we could require them to be tested for infections when they return. We could implement this using funds we'd save when we stop telling everyone to take off their shoes at the airport.