The Washington Post reports that colleges and universities are requiring top athletes to be tested for the sickle cell gene. The goal is to protect athletes from sudden death if they have undiagnosed sickle cell disease. Schools say that training schedules could be modified for the mostly African-American athletes who carry the trait. However, the screening has raised deep fears of discrimination.
But the prerequisite is evoking some of the most notorious episodes in the nation's history. While less known than the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for decades blacks were stigmatized by sickle cell because they carried it far more commonly than whites, marking them as supposedly genetically inferior, barring them from jobs, the military, insurance and even discouraging them from marrying and having children.
"This amounts to a massive genetic screening program, with tens of thousands being screened," said Troy Duster, a professor of sociology at New York University who studies the racial implications of science. "This could have an extraordinarily heavy impact on black athletes. You are going to be picking out these kids and saying, 'You are going to be scrutinized more closely than anyone else.' That's worrisome."
The testing is being watched closely as a case study in both the potential benefits and risks of large-scale modern genetic screening, which is proliferating as the genetic bases for more and more diseases are being deciphered.
"This could be a tip of an iceberg of genetic screening as we go forward," said Vence L. Bonham of the National Institutes of Health's National Human Genome Research Institute. "Getting it right is important, especially this one being the first one out of the gate."
Read the full story by Rob Stein in The Washington Post.