Genetics and Athletics
Last week while my husband and I watched the NBA draft, we were touched to see 20 year old Isaiah Austin receive a ceremonial pick by the NBA. Austin is a star center for Baylor’s basketball team and has been projected to be a first round pick in the next NBA draft. When he went for his routine physical, his electrocardiogram was abnormal, and Austin was sent for a more comprehensive cardiac workup. Soon after, he was diagnosed with the genetic condition known as Marfan syndrome and was advised by his doctors to quit playing competitive basketball.
At 7’1”, Austin’s height makes him an asset to any basketball team, but his height also is telling of his condition. Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder. Because connective tissue is found throughout the body, Marfan syndrome can affect many different parts of the body, such as the heart, blood vessels, bones, joints, and eyes. The classic “Marfanoid habitus” is someone who is very tall and thin, with long fingers, flexible joints, scoliosis, and a chest that sinks in. Some features of Marfan features, such as aortic enlargement (expansion of the main blood vessel that carries blood away from the heart to the rest of the body), can be life-threatening. So while some signs of Marfan are easy to see, some affected individuals may have the disease and not even know. Those affected individuals are at highest risk to have sudden cardiac death (SCD), since they might not be seeing their doctors or reducing their risks of aortic dissection or lung collapse.
Each year, SCD claims more than 300,000 lives in the United States. Up to 10% of cases of sudden cardiac death in general, and 25% of cases involving a family history, are thought to have a hereditary basis. Aside from Marfan, there are other conditions which can include SCD—some of these conditions include Long QT, Brugada syndrome and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Most inherited arrhythmia conditions such as those mentioned have an autosomal dominant inheritance pattern. If someone has it, there is a 50% chance he or she will pass it on to each child. For many of the SCD diseases, genetic testing can help establish a diagnosis and may serve as a tool to screen family members. Medications, medical surveillance, and reducing physical activity can save lives. As with Austin, knowing your risk before something devastating happens is key.
Austin was tested for Marfan because he had an abnormal screening test, but most athletes do not engage in genetic testing. Sports-related genetic testing is not widely used, but is available. While many professional sports organizations have shown interest in having players screened for conditions such as sickle cell disease and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, GINA issues arise and players’ genetic information is no longer legally accessible to their employers. Recently, more than a dozen companies have started to offer sports-related personal genomics tests and services. The “DNAthlete: Athletic Profile” provides consumers with genetic information related to endurance, muscle mass and strength, and grip strength. While the clinical utility of this information is up for debate, many athletes may want this information so they can integrate it into their training regimens.
“I have a whole life ahead of me,” Austin said. “I’m not going to sit here and I’m not going to sulk about not being able to play basketball anymore, because I can still be involved with the game somehow or some way.”
When asked what’s next, Austin responded “Everything.” And that is exactly why he was the NBA’s most valuable draft pick.