Athleticode seeks to offer genetic tests to prevent sports brain injuries

[caption id="attachment_22791" align="alignright" width="193" caption="Jim Kovach"][/caption]

MARIN COUNTY -- Jim Kovach, former president and COO of the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, left last week to spend full time at his startup Athleticode.

Athleticode, with three partners and some angel funding, currently occupies an incubator in Berkeley, but plans are to move it into central Marin.

A seven-year veteran of professional football with both medical and law degrees, Dr. Kovach is uniquely qualified to develop the 6-month-old genetic testing and customized training service for athletes.

"Proneness to sports injuries clearly has genetic aspects, but how often do geneticists test for specific genes that affect athleticism? About as often as sports trainers talk about nucleotides," said Dr. Kovach.

He founded Athleticode after noting rising awareness of concussion-caused chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) in football players.

"I suffered four concussions during my football years [he played five with the New Orleans Saints and two with the San Francisco 49ers], but I've also wondered if just the minor head-butting that happens continually during practices couldn't have the same effect," said Dr. Kovach.

If genetic testing reveals an athlete's vulnerability to C.T.E., or heart arrhythmia, heat stroke or other conditions, he or she may choose to drop the sport or else opt for special training to avoid injury, he said.

"With football players especially, there's a tendency to downplay injuries when they happen and an eagerness to get back into the game after the player has been sidelined. Often 'return to play' is allowed far too soon."

In addition to trouble-shooting for injuries, genetic testing could highlight why some players have longer careers than others and whether there are genes responsible for increased agility, endurance, nutrient absorption and flexibility.

Three of Athleticode's principals are former NFL players, and the other is a genetic researcher.

"Our premise is that sports injuries are vastly overlooked, and our goal is athletic empowerment through education," said Dr. Kovach.

He's well-connected in both the football and biotech worlds.

"A lesson I learned at the Buck Institute is the value of interdisciplinary science," he said. "The Buck was a great chapter in my life and brought me to Marin County, which I love."

Fortuitously, his official launch of Athleticode coincided with his induction into the College Sports Information Directors of America's Academic All-America Hall of Fame.

"I'll be there on Tuesday, shaking hands and talking about genetics," said Dr. Kovach.