Detection of HGH Met With Skepticism

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By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

Despite tens of millions of dollars in research over the last decade, international anti-doping authorities are uncertain about whether they will be able to deter use of human growth hormone at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

The current blood test for HGH has significant shortcomings and is still not available for widespread implementation, anti-doping officials say, and a urine test has yet to be developed.

"It's not at the stage where we would say it is state-of-the-art," said David Howman, director of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Though some officials say they expect a long-awaited blood test to be available for drug testing in the coming months, others say they are skeptical given years of delays and missed deadlines. Others, meantime, question whether the test will be effective when it becomes available, given that it will be able to detect HGH for only 20 to 24 hours after an athlete takes the drug.

The detection constraints, doping officials acknowledge, mean the blood test would be useless at major sporting events such as the Olympics because athletes could stop taking the drug just before a particular competition. Only surprise tests administered between competitions would be effective, the officials say.

It is not known how many athletes are using HGH, although the report on performance-enhancing drugs in professional baseball released last week highlighted the popularity of the drug among major league players, many of whom switched from steroids to HGH after baseball instituted a drug-testing program in 2003.

"Use of human growth hormone has risen, because, unlike steroids, it is not detectable through urine testing," said former senate majority leader George J. Mitchell, the report's author.

More than 50 of the 92 players mentioned in the report either acknowledged using HGH or were alleged to have purchased it. Several told Mitchell and his investigators that it had become popular even though it was typically about 10 times more expensive than steroids. A former player "told us that human growth hormone is now the drug of choice for those players who can afford it," Mitchell wrote in the report.

The issue of HGH abuse has long concerned anti-doping officials who oversee Olympic and other sports.

Growth hormone, which stimulates growth and cell production, is naturally present in the bloodstream. As soon as a synthetic form of HGH, which is known as recombinant growth hormone (rHGH), was released in 1985 to treat patients with growth hormone deficiency or wasting diseases such as AIDS, anti-doping officials anticipated it would be obtained by athletes seeking to increase muscle mass or speed recovery from injury.

Unlike anabolic steroids, HGH is not on the federal controlled substances list, but it is available only by prescription, and it is illegal to prescribe HGH for anything but a valid medical condition. In the aftermath of the release of the Mitchell report, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation this week that would amend the Controlled Substances Act to classify HGH -- like steroids -- as a Schedule III substance, which would make possession a crime without a prescription.

The Mitchell report described scenarios in which players obtained HGH, which is taken by injection, from black-market dealers who bought the drug from legitimate patients or disreputable doctors who wrote bogus prescriptions.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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