So You Want to Be an NBA Star: Do You Have the Genes?

Apr 26, 2008 4:45pm

ABC News’ Mike Lee reports from London: Something new is going on with the use of DNA that could make a very few lucky people rich, and devastate the hopes and dreams of many others. And it raises huge ethical issues for most of us, on top of the DNA issues we already worrying about.

Aside from being great athletes, what do you suppose Mohammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, and Tiger Woods all have in common?  If you believe some scientists, the logic is that they were all born to be great sports achievers because there are specific genetic traits that can predict exceptional athletic ability.

Of course this idea of predestined achievement by a few, and conversely predestined under-achievement by the many, goes against the teachings of a lot of philosophers and self-improvement gurus who say that most of us are capable of greatness. But, it seems, the lab boys disagree.

We use DNA to solve murders, screen for predisposition to diseases, study the evolution of prehistoric creatures, and match up children with their biological parents when a polygamy sect is broken up.

We debate how science can use DNA for the better good, while protecting society from the use of DNA to custom-build certain kinds of humans through DNA engineering.  That may seem a distant, maybe impossible, prospect.

But what you may not realise is that DNA profiling, which in scientific terms is off shelf technology, is now being used to identify a pre-disposition to "enhanced athletic performance."

In other words, we are on the verge of trying to identify the next generation of super athletes, and possibly on the verge of one of the great all-time robberies of the human spirit, the will to win based on pure desire, guts and determination.

Here is the background. According the Guardian newspaper of London, a leading sports scientist by the name of Dr. Henning Wackerhage of the school of medicine sciences at Aberdeen University, has been approached by an unnamed professional sports organization about the possibility of screening players to discover whether they have a genetic key to sports excellence.

"A football club was interested in doing genetic testing of athletes," he told the Guardian, and added, "It was a genetic performance test."

Dr. Wackerhage was not immediately available to speak with ABC News, but when he is, we will put more questions to him.

In Britain is it not illegal to carry out such tests, although it is not clear whether any organizations have yet to try. In Australia, one genetics company reportedly offers a $90 test the lab claims will identify whether customers have the fast-twitch muscle function gene called ACTN3, which is said to be found in leading sprinters.

Other genes associated with high athletic performance include PPARdelta, which controls human growth, and genes that regulate erythropoietin, a hormone that regulates the production of red blood cells.  Those are the little guys that deliver oxygen from the lungs to muscle tissue. The more efficient the delivery, the better the muscles perform.

Wackerhage published a scientific paper re-counting that have produced enhanced performance in mice and rats through "gene doping" and DNA screening for high performance potential.  He later also suggested that it might be possible to produce the human equivalent of a Formula One car by using genetic mutations (or engineering).

So some bright spark at a British soccer club got wind of the idea and called the professor.

"My advice was that there are questions of legality with an employer doing genetic tests on its employees.  They wanted to conduct a test (on current players) that is specific to genetics," Wackerhage said.

However, UK Sport, the group that governs drug testing in Britain, is quoted as saying it had no power to prevent clubs using genetic screening on players because it was not specifically prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

So where might this all lead? At the very least it appears that it is now possible to identify genetic traits found in top athletes, as well as potential top athletes at birth.

What will this do to the noble profession of sports scouts?

Instead of sitting through videotape of hundreds of high school football, basketball or baseball games every year looking for a promising rookie, will these legends of the sports world be replaced by clerks who go online and scan a lab’s data bank for genetic draft picks?

And what will happen to one of the greatest things about sports, the will to overcome what nature has given you and excel through hard work, guts and determination?

Huw Jennings, youth development manager at the Football Association Premier League, told the Guardian: "While you may be able to identify athletic ability, the road from promising youngster to top professional is far from smooth, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that talented athletes will become talented footballers."

Perhaps.  But DNA athletic profiling could fall hard on youngsters who need the traditional values of sports to help them develop into well-adjusted adults.  If they are told they are being bumped from their Little League team because their lab tests were dodgy, what will that do to future generations?

Despite some wonderful uses of DNA science, parents, would-be sports stars, and sports fans may eventually have to ask whether this is one scientific achievement too far.

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