A team of scientists from the USA and Italy say they have developed a urine test that detects human growth hormone. The finding is a potential breakthrough in efforts to find a non-invasive way to screen for the performance-enhancing drug that is banned throughout the athletic world.
Governing bodies and U.S. pro leagues have long sought a test that doesn't require blood to detect HGH, a synthetic hormone that aids in recovery and bolsters muscle growth. Even with the blood test, no prominent athlete has tested positive for HGH. Former track and field star Marion Jones and some baseball players, including New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, have admitted using it.
Virginia-based Ceres Nanosciences, partnered with George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and Italy's Istituto Superiore di Sanità, could have the test on the market within six months, company CEO Thomas Dunlap says. Ceres' intention was first reported by the Washington Business Journal.
Widespread adoption of the test probably would depend on lengthy scientific reviews by anti-doping authorities, leagues and players unions. World Anti-Doping Agency representatives had a conference call with Ceres officials last week, WADA spokesman Frederic Donze says.
Don Catlin, a founder of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab, long has been trying to develop a urine test for HGH. "This invention could be a giant step forward. … I'm going to pay a lot of attention," he says.
The researchers initially weren't out to combat doping in sports. They were fighting cancer.
"Our aim wasn't to clean up sport like some social Santa Claus," says George Mason life sciences professor Emanuel Petricoin, a member of Ceres' scientific advisory board. "We locked onto HGH because it presented us with a challenge due to the fact it's so hard to detect. As a sports fan, it'd be great to know there could be a more-level playing field."
"We're more fans of cancer research," says Lance Liotta, a George Mason University life sciences professor and also on Ceres' scientific advisory board.
Creating a test for HGH is more of a waystation for Ceres. Dunlap says if the test is adopted by sports leagues and anti-doping organizations, the revenue that would be generated would go toward creating tests that can detect cancer in its earliest stages.
"That's the next stop for us," Dunlap says. "We want to be able to detect disease and viruses early so they can be more effectively treated."
The researchers developed a particle about one-tenth the size of a red blood cell that attracts, traps and protects HGH molecules, according to George Mason research professor Alessandra Luchini. The particles surround nearly 100% of the HGH molecules and act as an amplifier, so available testing equipment can detect the synthetic hormone.
Dunlap said the test can detect HGH two weeks after an athlete has last used it. Current blood screening for HGH, set to be used again at the Beijing Olympics, can identify HGH 24-48 hours after an athlete's last use.
Ceres has licensed three patents from George Mason in what it calls "Nanotrap" technology.
The next step is getting the WADA and pro leagues to approve the test's use, a process that could take awhile, says Gary Green, a Los Angeles-based internist who serves as a consultant to Major League Baseball on performance-enhancing drugs.
"The company presented its early findings and provided preliminary results on the potential application for HGH detection," Donze said in an e-mail. "WADA encouraged the company to continue its work and emphasized that there is a robust process to be followed from research to the full implementation of a test for anti-doping purpose … WADA must ensure that all detection methods it approves and implements can withstand any scientific and legal challenge."
Ceres soon will start conducting human trials, Dunlap says.
"If this proves to be a reliable test, this would be tremendously helpful," says Drug Free Sport President Frank Uryasz, whose company runs the NCAA's drug testing program.
Former senator George Mitchell, who led the investigation into baseball's steroid era, told Congress in January, "Many players have shifted to human growth hormone, which is not detectable in any currently available urine test."
MLB spokesman Rich Levin said in an e-mail that MLB could move to include a urine HGH test as soon as one is scientifically validated.
Greg Bouris, spokesman for the Major League Baseball Players Association, said the union had no comment.
The NFL and its players union would have to collectively bargain the use of such a test.
"We are always open to reviewing any test but have yet to see a test that is available on a commercial basis," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. NFL Players Association officials could not be reached for comment.
Catlin has been trying to develop an HGH urine test most recently at his independent Anti-Doping Research lab in Los Angeles. He has received funding from MLB and the NFL for the effort.
Contributing: Mel Antonen, Jim Corbett