Future of HGH testing is thrown into doubt

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The hope of overcoming a major barrier to widespread testing for one of sport's most troublesome performance-enhancing drugs, human growth hormone, has been dealt a setback with the failure of two independent research efforts to find a urine test for HGH.

Manassas-based Ceres Nanosciences and prominent anti-doping scientist Don Catlin in Los Angeles recently concluded projects that had sought an alternative to the current blood test for HGH, which has been controversial among professional sports officials and others because it is invasive, less practical than urine testing and not fully developed.

"It's going to be extremely hard to detect it in urine; I think the scientists all agree to that," said David Howman, director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The results of the two projects make it clear that U.S. professional sports leagues under pressure to implement HGH testing will have to draw blood from their players -- which historically has been a non-starter for all of the U.S. sports leagues' players unions -- using a test that has had limited success, if they hope to at least deter the use of HGH in the near future.

Major League Baseball already is considering implementing blood testing for HGH at the minor league level, a move that could bring about a fresh look at the issue for MLB's players association.

Besides preferring a urine test, some sports officials have questioned the effectiveness of the current HGH blood test, which has a detection window of just 24 to 48 hours after use and has caught just one athlete in the more than six years it has been used.

Though some 1,500 HGH tests have been administered since the 2004 Athens Games, the only athlete to test positive was a British rugby player snagged by an out-of-competition test.

Howman said anti-doping officials intend to address the efficacy concerns within the year by supplementing the current HGH test with a second testing prong -- also a blood test -- that will increase the detection window to about two weeks.

"That [current] window of opportunity to detect it is quite tiny," Howman acknowledged.

But the prospects of ever finding a bullet-proof urine test for HGH look bleak; the three-year, Catlin-led project jointly funded by MLB and the National Football League demonstrated that "there's far less growth hormone in urine than we really thought," Catlin said Saturday.

The other urine-centered research project funded by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and led by scientists at Ceres Nanosciences ended with the prospects of developing a validated urine test at least five to 10 years away, according to USADA Chief Executive Travis Tygart.

"It's miles away from proving doping," Tygart said by phone from Lausanne, Switzerland.

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