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Razib Khan
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Sports X Factor

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Last week I posted Don’t buy AIBioTech Sports X Factor kit! I laid out my rationale explicitly:

I’ve been pretty vocal about the impending specter of genetic paternalism in relation to personal genomics, which I believe to be futile in the long term, and likely to squelch innovation in the United States in the short term. Like any new product category there’s a lot of hype and confusion in the area of personal genomics, but I think it’s important that we allow some mistakes and misfires to occur. Innovation and creativity isn’t failure-free.

With that said, I also think it is incumbent upon the personal genomics community, if there is such a thing, to “police” the flow of information. I have seen references in the media to a new personal genomics kit, Sports X Factor, selling for $180, from AIBioTech. My initial intent was to ignore this, as there is real science and tech to be covered. This is just another case of a biotech firm trying to leverage public confusion and gullibility into revenue. But if I think such a thing, I should make my opinion known, shouldn’t I?….

My intent was to come up high on Google searches for the firm and product which they’re selling. I don’t want to drive the firm out of business or anything like that, and I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know if I think what they are selling with Sports X Factor kit is technically fraudulent (though I don’t think it is). But I wouldn’t recommend this to my friends. $180 is not a trivial sum in my world. Unlike some I don’t think genetic information is horrible or incredibly precious information which only “professionals” should have access to. I just don’t think that the price is right. Too many of the media stories have a tendency to focus on the terror of people finding out about their genetic predispositions, but I think the truth of Sports X Factor kit is more banal: it is just not a product with results worth the money you are shelling out. Standard economics, not bioethics.

Today I got this strange comment from someone who works for AIBioTech, the firm which produces Sports X Factor, defending the product:

You are very welcome to your opinion, and if you don’t want to buy it then DON”T. From what I can see, you are no more qualified (“degrees”? BS? MS, PHD?) to offer an opinion on whether the test is valid than anyone else. Just because you have a blog, it does not make you an expert on sports medicine. But when someone has the opportunity to find out if they or their child is at risk of sudden heart attack on the playing field, who are you to say that they should not do it? The market will decide if the test is valid, not you.

The individual goes under the handle “PHDGrl,” and unless this person is impersonating someone else’s identity, she does have a Ph.D (I looked at her Facebook profile). But more importantly she works for AIBioTech, as confirmed also by an IP trace. I don’t personally have an issue about people in a firm wanting to defend their product. Frankly one of my problems with the product they’re selling is that there’s a lack of transparency to my mind about the methods they’re using to calculate their scores, so they could have addressed that issue more thoroughly than in the material they have on the web.

As it is, the criticism was really weird in my opinion. It is moderately relevant that I do not have a doctorate, all things equal, so that’s fine. But I do think I am more able to offer an opinion on whether the test is valid “than anyone else.” Not only am I a relatively large consumer of personal genomics services (I’ve had almost everyone in my family typed, on my dime), I have done a lot of detailed analysis of the raw data of friends & family (as well as the over 100 individuals in the African Ancestry Project). As for the last two sentences, I thought it was pretty clear that I am biased toward letting the market decide. Opinions offered on this weblog are part of the process of the market deciding. As would be a full-throated defense of the product from AIBioTech representatives. I also think parents have the right (as do children) to know about clear and present health risks which genotyping can ascertain. I just don’t think that at $180 AIBioTech’s product is a good value proposition for the average consumer. Unlike some I don’t think Sports X Factor information is likely to cause grievous harm to the psyches or physiques of parents and children who get their results back. I just think that the damage done to the wallet definitely isn’t worth the informational return for the vast majority of their customers.

On the one hand I appreciate AIBioTech “pushing the envelope.” But pushing the envelope should be accompanied by an awesome product. I don’t think Sports X Factor is an awesome product.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
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I’ve been pretty vocal about the impending specter of genetic paternalism in relation to personal genomics, which I believe to be futile in the long term, and likely to squelch innovation in the United States in the short term. Like any new product category there’s a lot of hype and confusion in the area of personal genomics, but I think it’s important that we allow some mistakes and misfires to occur. Innovation and creativity isn’t failure-free.

With that said, I also think it is incumbent upon the personal genomics community, if there is such a thing, to “police” the flow of information. I have seen references in the media to a new personal genomics kit, Sports X Factor, selling for $180, from AIBioTech. My initial intent was to ignore this, as there is real science and tech to be covered. This is just another case of a biotech firm trying to leverage public confusion and gullibility into revenue. But if I think such a thing, I should make my opinion known, shouldn’t I?


So here’s the bottom line: If you don’t want to waste $180, don’t purchase a Sports X Factor kit, it’s just not worth the money. You can see a representative mainstream media report at The Washington Post. Because of the nature of how objectivity works it seems clear that they went looking for quotes from people who could express what’s going on here: this firm is hoodwinking gullible parents with a little extra money and time to throw around. The Sports X Factor kit is not worth the cost unless you want some psychic validation. The story strongly hints that some parents are just falling prey to confirmation bias.

Of course athleticism is substantially heritable. That is, how well you do does have a pretty significant basis in your genetics. But the most effective way to figure out your potentiality is free: look at your parents. The Sports X Factor test results summary page looks really confusing and quasi-scientific to me. More geared to impress customers with a barrage of numeracy than give cautious odds with huge error bars. How much of the variance in the population do these genes control? Not much last I checked. Three of the scientific references in the sample test results are to papers on which Dr Daniel MacArthur is a co-author. So let me quote some sage advice from him:

Beyond “the gene for speed”
I’m certainly not arguing here that genetics doesn’t play any role in Bolt’s success – or in the remarkable over-representation of West African descendents in Olympic short-distance track events, or the similarly impressive skew towards East Africans among marathon runners. In fact I think most geneticists would be staggered if this was the case, even though direct evidence for underlying genes is currently very thin on the ground.

Rather, my point is that an excessive emphasis on ACTN3 as a major explanation for Jamaican success does a grave disservice to the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors required for top-level athletic performance. This suggestion goes against everything we’ve learnt about the genetics of complex traits from recent genome-wide association studies, which have revealed that quantitative traits (like height and body weight) are frequently influenced by dozens to hundreds of genes, each of small effect; if anything, it’s likely that athletic performance will be even more genetically complex than these traits. The ACTN3-centred argument also dismisses the importance of Jamaica’s impressive investment in the infrastructure and training system required to identify and nurture elite track athletes, the effects of a culture that idolises local track heroes, and the powerful desire of young Jamaicans to use athletic success to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

It is almost certainly true that Usain Bolt carries at least one of the “sprint” variants of the ACTN3 gene, but then so do I (along with around five billion other humans worldwide). Indeed, I’m fortunate enough to be lugging around two “sprint” copies – but that doesn’t mean you’ll see me in the 100 metre final in London in 2012. Unfortunately for me, it takes a lot more than one lucky gene to create an Olympian.

The underlying science here does not buttress the marketing. If you want to fine tune your work-out, engage in personal self-experimentation and see what works for you! Ask your family members what their experience has been, they share your genes to a large degree. Genomics just isn’t going to add that much value. Allocate the extra money for personal training sessions or protein bars or something.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com"