May 2011

Out on a limb: Genes vs dreams

by Jordana Bieze Foster, Editor

Genetic testing would seem to be just what the doctor ordered for sports injury prevention. But the world of sports is far from ready for genetic testing.

Given the preliminary nature of data presented in April at the IOC World Conference on Prevention of Injury & Illness in Sports, it will be quite a while before testing for a genetic predisposition to Achilles tendinopathy or anterior cruciate ligament injury is ready for prime time.

But that didn’t stop session moderators from questioning the South African genetics researchers about whether the fruits of their work might be misappropriated for commercial gain. What if the manager of Manchester United decided to have all players tested, then jettison those deemed to be damaged goods?

There are probably plenty of reasons why that scenario is unlikely to play out in any professional sports leagues here in the U.S. without major work stoppages, lawsuits, or both. But perhaps the biggest reason—a seven foot, three hundred pound reason—is Eddy Curry.

Among National Basketball Association fans, Curry is the poster child for Isiah Thomas’ remarkable mismanagement of the Knicks franchise, earning north of $11 million per year to sit on the bench as his teammates run an offense in which he has no role. But before being traded to the Knicks in 2005, Curry was more famous for his refusal to take a DNA test at the request of his former team. After Curry (then just 22 years old) experienced a heart arrhythmia and underwent a battery of inconclusive diagnostic exams, the Chicago Bulls wanted to determine the restricted free agent’s genetic risk for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy before offering him a long term contract.

The league backed the Bulls, but the players’ union supported Curry. After a lengthy and contentious stalemate, ultimately Curry was traded to New York, where he is no longer associated with any cardiac issues unless you count the public perception that his game lacks heart.

Given that there are no interventions to allow an athlete to continue playing competitively with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, one can understand why a team might not want to offer a multimillion dollar deal to a guy who could end up being the next Reggie Lewis. But if a players’ union wouldn’t bend on that issue, there’s no way they would agree to testing for genetic predispositions that aren’t matters of life and death. Not without one heck of a fight.

And in a way that’s too bad, because risk factors for many other sports injuries do in fact respond to interventions. In theory identifying an athlete’s genetic risk for an ACL injury, for example, would present an opportunity for preventive measures—neuromuscular training, orthotic interventions, even surgery—that could address that risk, keep that athlete off the disabled list, prolong his or her career, and add to rather than subtract from his or her earnings potential.

But a DNA test had no potential upside for Eddy Curry’s career. And that will likely make all the difference.

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