Genetic tests for sports performance 'virtually meaningless,' experts say

Commercial genetic testing designed to reveal athletic potential in youth for sports is being called meaningless by a group of experts, who also warn about confidentiality risks.

Tests claim to assess a child's genetic potential for success in sports

Commercial genetic testing designed to reveal athletic potential for sports is being called meaningless by a group of experts, who also warn about confidentiality risks.

Direct-to-consumer genetic tests for athletic ability can be aimed at individuals, coaches, parents, athletes and sports teams. (Shutterstock)

The 22 experts from the fields of genomics, sports and exercise looked at direct-to-consumer genetic tests marketed online related to athletic talent and the published scientific evidence on the tests.

The tests are aimed at individuals, coaches, parents, athletes and sports teams. Anyone who pays the cost and sends a sample of saliva, for example, can request a test. 

Claims for the genetic tests suggest that they:

  • Give parents and coaches early information on a child's genetic predisposition for success in team or individual speed/power or endurance sports.
  • Reveal how genes contribute to athletic traits.
  • Use the DNA results to help subjects lose fat, get lean, build muscle, get fitter.

Independent studies have identified issues relating to quality control, including different results being reported from samples from the same individual, the experts said.

"Based on the published scientific evidence, the information provided by [the consumer tests] is virtually meaningless for prediction and/or optimization of sport performance," Dr. Alun Williams of Manchester Metropolitan University in Crewe, U.K., and his co-authors wrote in a consensus statement published in Monday's online issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The science around genetic testing is an emerging field, but the ability to interpret the meaning of test results is at a relatively early stage, the experts said.

The statement emphasizes that the speed of change in gene sequencing technology has far outpaced regulation or universally accepted guidelines. Legislation in the field varies widely among countries.

Data risks

The authors also point to the importance of counselling before genetic tests, particularly since there may be implications for health or life insurance. Counselling is not part of the services offered with the consumer tests.

Williams and his team also raise security and confidentiality, saying an individual's genetic information is sensitive, but it's not clear what might happen to the data if a company goes under.

The authors noted that the former U.K. Human Genetic Commission suggested minimum advertising guidance for marketing consumer genetic tests, saying it should:

  • Accurately describe both the characteristics and the limitations of the tests offered.
  • Not overstate the utility of a genetic test.
  • Make sure that any claim made about the clinical validity of a test is supported by relevant evidence from the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
  • Recognize that the test provider should be aware of the risk of bias when quoting evidence.

The authors said large-scale collaborative projects may help to develop a stronger scientific foundation for the testing.


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