As Major League Baseball considers taking the leap into testing minor-league players' blood for human growth hormone, it has become increasingly clear that their much-preferred method of testing - through urine - will not be an option for quite some time.
The chief executive officer of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which last year funded a study into a potential urine test, said Tuesday that he does not believe a viable urine test will be available for several years at minimum.
"I think it's fair to say it's a long ways away," Travis Tygart told Newsday in a telephone interview. "Three to 10 years, or three to seven years, and a lot more studying and a lot more time and effort to see if it's actually something that can translate into something that is a valid scientific test."
Even though USADA tests U.S. Olympians' blood for HGH, the nonprofit agency was intrigued enough by the breakthroughs by George Mason professors Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin III regarding a potential HGH urine test that about a year ago it funded them about $75,000.
USADA remains encouraged by their technology, Tygart said, but he is not counting on a urine test for HGH appearing anytime soon. "I'm just not sure where ultimately it will go, but if it ends up continuing down the path of developing a test, it's several to many years away at best," he said.
Dr. Don Catlin, the anti-doping expert who received funds from MLB and the National Football League to develop a urine test, recently came to the conclusion that it is not possible to detect HGH through a conventional urine test because the amount present in urine is too low. Catlin believes he can develop a stronger test by using an aptamer, a tool he said can attract HGH at lower concentrations.
Liotta believes the way to get around the obstacle in HGH urine testing is through his nanoparticle technology, which was developed years ago to "measure cancer biomarkers that existed in very, very low concentrations in body fluids such as blood and urine," he said in an e-mail.
Liotta said his group has spent the past years studying the amount of HGH normally in college-age students so they can have a baseline level to go off. He plans to publish the results sometime this year. "We are beginning to understand the range of the normal levels in urine," he wrote. "A urine test for HGH will require a better understanding of the forms of HGH in the urine and what value constitutes a 'high.' This will take another year or more of work assuming proper funding is available."