WANT to raise a little Sam Stosur or perhaps a (not so little) Ian Thorpe?
If hot-house parenting is your thing, you might want to make sure your investment in coaches and nutritional supplements is well targeted before you start the campaign. After all, you wouldn’t want to get up at 5 am every day for swimming training if your child was actually more suited to, say, table tennis.
Fortunately, the friendly folks at a rash of new gene-testing laboratories are here to help, as this article in the Washington Post makes clear.
Tests being spruiked online to parents promise to look at individual genes related to muscle fibre type, cardiovascular and skeletal muscle function, energy metabolism, grip strength and so on.
One gene, we’re told, is associated with “endurance performance in female rowers”. The female rowing endurance gene … haven’t heard of that one before.
Pity the children whose parents take up such offers. Not only do these children risk being denied the opportunity to discover for themselves the things they’d really love to do — even if they were hopeless at them — but you can pretty much imagine the recriminations down the track.
“I spent thousands of dollars on your training … You could have been a world champion … The tests proved it.”
Well, no. The tests didn’t.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School and colleagues last year looked at some of the direct-to-consumer genetic evaluations on the market, including tests for the creative, musical, artistic and shyness “genes”, as well as for intelligence, athletic talent and bad behaviour.
Companies offering the tests often openly or implicitly misrepresented the usefulness of the information they could provide, the authors said.
So-called scientific claims were often based on unproven associations, small effects or a denial of the complexity of genetic information.
Basically, there’s a lot more to being a champion marathon runner than a single gene that might play a role in slow-twitch muscle fibres.
Government regulators do appear to be taking some action. The US Food and Drug Administration last month asked one company to justify its marketing of a genetic athletic assessment test without regulatory approval.
But it seems the question for regulators is not just whether marketers can justify their scientific claims about the tests, but whether we should permit genetic testing of children for non-therapeutic purposes at all.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 30 May 2011