Lack of viable test will keep MLB from being able to successfully test for HGH

Updated: November 11, 2008, 9:38 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Major League Baseball won't be testing for human growth hormone any time soon, even though it would like to do so.

Drug experts are looking for a viable way to detect HGH, but no athlete has ever tested positive for it. And there are even questions about whether HGH enhances performance.

"Growth hormone is widely abused by athletes," Richard Holt, a professor at University of Southampton in Great Britain, said Monday at the daylong Growth Hormone Summit, presented by Major League Baseball and UCLA. "There is little scientific evidence that growth hormone is performance-enhancing. I think the scientists are wrong and the athletes are right."

Holt thinks most athletes involved take multiple agents, anabolic steroids among them, not just HGH.

"In order to get the full benefit of growth hormone, you need to take it with other agents as well," he said.

Several players were linked to human growth hormone in former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's report on doping in baseball, released last December.

Don Catlin, director of Anti-Doping Research at UCLA, said there's a need to come up with a valid form of testing, be it by blood or urine.

And that, of course, means financing.

"Patients, yes. Athletes, no," he said regarding positive tests in the past. "The government needs to come in. I don't like it, but I don't like X-ray machines at the airport, either. There really isn't much choice. We're trying to find a needle in a haystack. There's good hope."

Regarding how HGH affects performance, Catlin said: "There is no answer and I don't think there will be unless somebody gets approval to do the study. It's the same thing with anabolic steroids 25 or 30 years ago. We need the same study with HGH."

Catlin and Dr. Lance Liotta, a former pathology lab chief at the National Cancer Institute's Center for Cancer Research, are in the midst of a three-year study, financed by Major League Baseball and the National Football League, to determine whether an HGH test is possible.

Liotta, who has already determined how to isolate HGH markers in urine, said he will conduct a study of naturally-occurring HGH levels in the blood and urine of students at George Mason University in order to establish an acceptable comparison baseline for testing, the Los Angeles Times reported.

According to baseball officials, speaking anonymously because they weren't allowed to discuss the situation publicly, Catlin and Liotta are expected to be "at the front of the line" when the Partnership for Clean Competition begins to distribute $10 million in study funding later this year, according to the report. The NFL, MLB and the United States Olympic Committee are funding that effort.

Douglas Rollins, executive director of the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City, pointed out that the window of opportunity in testing is very small, making HGH difficult to detect.

"Thirty hours, I'd say," he said.

Other experts expressed the opinion that the window might be smaller.

Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer, thinks the sport is doing everything it can to clean things up.

"The commissioner [Bud Selig] is committed to eradicating all performance-enhancing drugs, including HGH," DuPuy said. "One of the things we've recognized from the start of this is HGH presents challenges. One of the purposes for this conference is to get everybody on the same page. All we can do is continue to fund things like this.

"I think we're doing the best we can do. You've got most of the leading experts in the field here today, and that's a good start."

Among those attending were Travis T. Tygart, the chief executive officer of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which is under contract with the USOC at least through 2010. Its budget is expected to climb about 10 percent for 2009.

"We have the support of clean athletes like we never have before," Tygart said. "We owe it to our athletes to overcome these obstacles and end the use of HGH."

The USOC committed $3 million and USADA $1 million last January to The Partnership for Clean Competition, a collaborative that also includes MLB and the NFL. The partnership uses the money to fund grants for research to combat performance-enhancing drugs in sports.

Protracted cases involving Floyd Landis and Justin Gatlin over the past two years highlighted some of USADA's weaknesses and left the agency vulnerable to second-guessing.

Gene Orza, the No. 2 official of the players' union, said if there's a scientifically valid test for HGH, the membership would make a decision on what to do.

"My suspicion is they would adopt it, but they wouldn't be railroaded into doing so," he said. "Today's conference suggests a lot of hard work is being done by a lot of qualified people, but there's a long way to go. No one should have complete faith in a test that has never tested anyone positive.

"We don't oppose blood testing. We say we'll consider blood testing, which is different from urine testing. We're saying we'll consider blood testing when the time is right. Now is not that time. The players' association is contributing now to the development and analysis of HGH testing. That's part of this conference."

HGH was first used in 1959 to treat children of short stature. Studies have shown that long-term use, at great expense, does make children a little taller.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.