Baseball strikes out again as HGH test gets first positive
In a way, Major League Baseball's anti-doping system failed another test on Monday when British authorities announced a professional rugby player had failed a screening for human growth hormone.
Historically slow to acknowledge the use of performance-enhancing drugs in their sport, baseball leaders repeatedly have refused to recognize the existence of a "reliable, validated, universally accepted test" for the detection of HGH - a full six years after such a test was first used at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"The argument of Major League Baseball - and the National Football League - is no longer valid," said Dr. Gary Wadler, the Manhasset-based authority on drugs in sports. "They've always said that the testing doesn't work because there were no positives."
That fact, Wadler said, was due in part to the relatively small number of screenings, which require antibody kits that weren't being produced as quickly as doping officials had hoped. Now there is a positive. And 31-year-old rugby pro Terry Newton, in a statement released by his lawyers, confirmed the accuracy of the type of blood test applied to all international sports using the World Anti-Doping Agency protocols.
"This is a major breakthrough for the skeptics out there," said Wadler, who serves as chairman of the WADA committee that identifies banned substances. "It sends a strong message to all athletes who take the risk of using HGH: You're going to get caught."
Unless, of course, your sport provides a license to cheat by refusing to test. For years baseball - as Olympic officials had done about 25 years earlier - employed the backward logic that "we don't have to test because we don't have a drug problem." Not until 2004 did the sport begin screening for illegal substances, and then only in the wake of the BALCO scandal and Jose Canseco's tell-all book, "Juiced." And it only has tightened its testing procedures incrementally since then, each time in reaction to subsequent rumors and reports of widespread drug abuse.
HGH, though not a steroid, builds muscle, strengthens connective tissue and sometimes is said to improve vision, especially when used in combination with steroids and insulin. Before it began to be produced synthetically in the 1980s for legitimate medical purposes, it was obtained from the pituatary gland of cadavers - thus, an early 1980s joke that anti-doping agents should stake out graveyards in search of athletes intent on cheating. But the supply not only was scarce but dangerous, triggering the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in four boys who had been medically treated with growth hormone from cadavers.
The synthetic stuff, by then popular in elite athletic circles, technically was banned by MLB in 2005, but still is not tested for. That, despite the 2007 Mitchell Report, ordered by baseball commissioner Bud Selig, which detailed rife steroid and HGH use.
An MLB medical conference in late 2008 featured front office officials arguing that no accurate urine test existed to detect HGH and the players' union's continued opposition to blood testing, and Selig's insistence during the 2009 World Series that he remained committed to wiping out HGH use rang false with anti-doping experts. Worse, Selig declared after Mark McGwire's recent admission of career-long use of performance-enhancing drugs that the "so-called steroid era....is clearly a thing of the past."
When a Newsday columnist called Selig and then-union chief Donald Fehr "HGH enablers" a year ago, baseball officials registered an angry protest, again insisting that the substance could not be accurately screened. At the time, the HGH blood test used at the Olympics already had been around for five years.
There is agreement among scientists that a good HGH urine test in fact lingers in the development stage, though two George Mason University professors, Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin, published a peer-reviewed paper in December 2008 claiming the first process to capture "a reliable detectable concentration" of HGH from urine.
"The amount of growth hormone in the urine is exquisitely small," Wadler agreed in a telephone interview on Tuesday. "It is metabolized by the body, so less than two-tenths of one percent comes out in the urine." But ongoing arguments that even blood testing is hindered by a small window of HGH detection are countered by "a couple of buts," he said. "One is that it's better as an out-of-competition test. Also, even though the window is small, people who take growth hormone take it every day.
"The bottom line is, you must blood test." Unless, of course, you don't want to catch anybody.