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The genetics of physical fitness
  1. Edward Lavin
  1. Gloucester Road Medical Centre, Bristol
    1. Hugh Montgomery
    1. UCL Centre for Cardiovascular Genetics, Rayne Institute, London WC1E 6JJ

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      Editor,—Any paragraph that starts with the statement “We must be cautious, however, that such research is not misused.”1 is obviously completely ignoring the history of science in general and sport in particular. From the post hoc hand wringing of the Manhattan project scientists to the current debate about “genetically modified organisms”, it is manifestly obvious that, if there is money or fame (or both) to be made on the back of a scientific discovery, then that discovery will be used (or misused, depending on where you stand).

      Unfortunately sport is one of the worst spheres of human endeavour for the misapplication of science, and the fault is not always with the “rogue” athlete and his pharmacological advisor. The cult of the “elite athlete” is one that has been promoted world wide, with one of its stated aims being to provide role models for the youth of the world. In fact, even without illegal chemical experimentation, they are nothing of the kind. With their exclusivity of selection, preparation, participation, and remuneration, they are as removed from real life as it is possible to be.

      While I am happy that Montgomery and Woods continue their work for the best of motives, I would regretfully suggest that they end their pious wishing that their work is not misused. They can bet their bottom euro that it will be used, to distance even further the freak “elite” athletes from the rest of humanity.

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      Author's reply

      Editor,—Perhaps surprisingly, I wholeheartedly welcome the majority of remarks by Dr Lavin. He emphasises the very points we wished to make. Far from “ignoring the history of science”, we are referring to it.

      The Manhattan project was a technological triumph aimed at designing a weapon of mass destruction. It does not surprise me that many of those involved regret their participation. In the case of genetic understanding, progress made was perhaps aimed at more noble causes, but has again been technological in nature. These new technologies allow probing of gene structure and function as never before. The moral issue that we face is therefore not whether we should develop the technology (which is already here) but rather its application.

      There would seem to be few ways forward. At present, we are trying to use the genetics of sport for wholly humanitarian reasons: if we can find out how and why exercise training is beneficial, then we may be able to harness this knowledge and apply it to the sick. One approach may be to try to identify rare genetic variants in “superathletes”. Such a strategy may indeed have high risk of misuse. We have chosen a different—and safer—strategy: to seek common variants of ubiquitous genes and to identify smaller associated variations in phenotype.

      Our editorial was therefore not (we hope) “pious wishing”. We rather hoped to raise some of the moral dilemmas and provoke thought and reaction. We are glad that we have done so.

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