By Phillip Whitten
LONDON, June 3. IN a giant leap forward for clean sport, British researchers announced yesterday that they have developed a test to detect human growth hormone (hGH) and are confident it can be approved in time for next year's Athens Olympics.
This writer believes, after interviewing dozens of leading swimmers and coaches around the world, that the use of hGH to enhance performance is widespread in our sport.
HGH, which promotes growth in children and prompts the body to turn food into muscle rather than fat in adults, has legitimate medical uses. It has been used for years to increase the height of children who are significantly under average. More recently, with the development of bioengineered hGH, the hormone has been used to restore vitality to older folks.
Dr. Cathy McHugh of Southampton University said yesterday that the combined blood-urine test she developed with her colleagues can detect the exogenous, performance-enhancing hormone up to 84 days after someone has taken it.
For years, scientists have been trying to come up with a reliable test to distinguish naturally-occurring (or endogenous) hGH from the pharmaceutically-manufactured (exogenous) version. Dr. McHugh said the test she developed, known as IGF1, detects the two proteins produced by the liver when exogenous hGH is taken. The levels are "three to five times higher" than normal in a person who has taken hGH, she said.
Actually, exogenous hGH can produce much higher levels than that. In 2000, more than 50 Italian Olympians — including Olympic gold medalist Massi Rosolino — reportedly tested as much as 20 times the normal level. All were training at the Italian national training center.
However, unlike such substances as testosterone and epitestosterone, no precise guidelines have yet been developed, tested and accepted that establish categorically what the "normal" range of hGH is in adult male and female athletes. This will have to be done, including a wide margin for error, before any test for hGH is instituted.
Nonetheless, McHugh says the test, which was funded by a $1.2 million grant from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), will be presented to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) next March. "Hopefully if they're satisfied with it, they'll use it in Athens," she said.
Toward that end, researchers plan to test 300 athletes after they had competed to check their hGH levels. Injured athletes will also be checked for their levels and 90 non-athletes will be given the hormone for a month and tested afterward.
In addition, trial tests are expected to be conducted at the Pan American Games in Santo Domingo and the World Track & Field Championships in Paris in August.
McHugh's team is also looking at any possible "racial factor." Initial trials of IGF1 were conducted on
"Caucasians." Now McHugh and her colleagues are extending their research to other ethnic groups, including Asians and Africans.
"We expect it to be valid in them," she said, "but you have to prove it beyond any reasonable doubt before you go and accuse anyone."