This morning Jim Woodman of Pathway Genomics, a start-up consumer genetic testing company based here in San Diego, visited the offices of the competitor Group. I am going to write an article about Pathway and, more broadly, about the nascent industry of consumer genetic testing, particularly as it relates to athletes, for Triathlete, and I'm excited about it, not least of all because I will get a free, comprehensive genetic analysis out of the bargain.
I've known Jim Woodman for a long time. He used to publish Florida Sports magazine. In the late '90s he created a website called ActiveUSA, which was purchased by a company by RaceGate, which then became Active.com. I met Jim in 2000 when he was working as Active's senior VP of business development and I was hired there as a content editor. I'm not sure exactly when or why Jim left Active, but he seems pretty excited about his new gig. And I can see why. His business is on the frontier of a world-changing phenomenon. Genetic analysis is fairly primitive today, but before long it will have amazing capabilities, and companies such as Pathway will drive that evolution, so to speak. As Jim said, "We're like the Internet in 1993."
There are lots of genetic testing outfits out there, but most are narrowly focused on testing for such things as paternity. Pathway is one of only four noteworthy companies in the world that does very broad testing. They do the paternity thing, as well as ancestry, genetic predisposition for numerous diseases, pharmacogenetic testing (which potentially reveals that certain medications won't work on you, or will kill you), carrier screening (which reveals the likelihood that you will pass along certain disease risks to your offspring), and "interesting traits" such as athletic potential.
I am most interested in learning about my athletic genes. The trouble is that currently Pathway only tests for one genetic marker of athletic potential, which is the sprinter's gene. I told Jim I already know I don't have that one. And in point of fact, through many years of training and racing I already know virtually everything that any number of genetic markers could possibly reveal to me. I strongly believe that there is no better test of athletic performance potential than athletic performance itself. Why bother getting a VO2max test when you can run a 5K? Why bother getting a gene test when you can run a 5K? But I do see some potential for genetic analysis to have some benefit for athletes down the road. There are genes that determine not only raw potential for endurance, speed and so forth but also how the body responds to different types of training. So it's conceivable that genetic testing could be used one day to help athletes develop customized training programs that cultivate their potential with less trial and error. Maybe not, but maybe.
Of course I am interested in learning about my health risks. I don't think I'm one of those people who will freak out if I learn that I am predisposed for early-onset Alzheimer's disease (which is not to say I would bear the news with complete equanimity). And I am also interested in learning about my ancestry. Several years ago my mother did some genealogy research that led her to the discovery that she may have some Jewish blood. Until then I had thought I was nothing but Irish, Scotch, and English. I'd love to confirm that I am one of the Chosen People!
The testing process is very simple: I just have to spit in a vial and FedEx it to the Pathway lab. Within eight weeks I will know who I am. I will let you know if I find out anything interesting.