Olympic Team GB trials gene tests for injury

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Scientists behind Olympic Team GB are working on genetic tests to understand why some athletes are prone to injury, BBC's Newsnight has learned.

Tendon injuries and stress fractures are common in elite athletes, but how and why they happen is less clear.

University College London's Prof Hugh Montgomery says they have found a gene they think strongly influences the risk of stress fracture and more will come.

It is hoped the research will allow training to be individually tailored.

Diet, repetitive strain and loading are all known to play a part, and scientists say there is clearly a strong genetic element.

Director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London, Prof Montgomery carried out groundbreaking work on genes and fitness in the 1990s, most notably the "ACE" gene, thought to be linked to endurance.

"If we understood that genetic component we would have a much better understanding of the patho-physiology - the disease processes that let that happen," says Prof Montgomery.

He has been working closely with the English Institute of Sport (EIS), which aims to apply the latest in sports science and medicine for the benefit of Britain's Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

EIS's Director of Sport Science, Dr Ken van Someren, told Newsnight he is keen to apply the latest genetics discoveries.

London 2012 - One extraordinary year

London 2012 One extraordinary year graphic

"If we can identify some particular genes that are associated with a higher risk of injury in certain individuals, and we think we're close, we can tailor the training, conditioning and preparation that we put those individuals through."

He added that should injury occur, the research could also influence the medical treatment the person receives .

But Dr van Someren stressed that there is no intention to use genes as a means of identifying sporting talent.

He says that for many people sport is about a fun and healthy lifestyle and genetics should not be used to screen people in or out of sport, adding that although genes might tell us a lot about the likelihood or probability of success, it is not an absolute science and there would be a danger of "missing out on some future champions."

Prof Montgomery believes that looking for tomorrow's sporting champions should involve looking at a combination of genes and the environment, rather than just relying on screening the genome.

He says we should look a person's performance and dedication and to the sport rather than trying to "predict that dedication and performance by gene screening."

Watch Susan Watts' report The Sporting Edge: what sets elite athletes apart? Newsnight on Wednesday 25 July at 10.30pm on BBC Two. Or afterwards on BBC iPlayer or the Newsnight website.

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