COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. --- A new test that provides a breakthrough in detecting human growth hormone in blood is expected to become available soon and make it more difficult for athletes to use HGH without getting caught.
It's a test some experts consider so good, however, it could blunt the push for the urine-based test sought by some in baseball and football, possibly stalling promising research that has already cost many thousands of dollars.
The new test, called a biomarkers test, scans the blood for chemicals the body produces after HGH use, which are detectable for up to two weeks. The test, expected to be available in the coming weeks or months, is a complement to -- or maybe an improvement over -- the current test, called an isoform test, which scans blood for synthetic HGH.
The isoform test detects synthetic HGH in blood for only about 48 hours after use, making it easier to avoid detection.
"Anytime we have more tools, it's a good thing," said Larry Bowers, the lead scientist for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "We view the two tests as working together. One doesn't replace the other, but it certainly gives us a wider window and a greater opportunity for catching people."
Following these developments anxiously are scientists from a Virginia lab called Ceres Nanosciences, where a $65,000 grant from USADA has been used to fund research that could someday lead to a urine test for HGH -- the only HGH test Major League Baseball players would have to submit to under the current "Joint Drug Agreement" between baseball and the union.
Buoyed by success from the early phases of their testing, which the Ceres scientists say has debunked long-held claims that HGH particles can't be effectively captured in urine, Ceres is now applying for a grant to take the experiments to the next step.
"To move forward after this, we desperately need money," said Lance Liotta, lead scientist on the Ceres HGH project. "Funding is critical for us. If all the money goes toward the blood test that other people are working on, then they're missing a fantastic opportunity in urine that they shouldn't dismiss offhand."
Ceres' best chance for funding is from the Partnership for Clean Competition (PCC), a collaborative founded in 2008 by the NFL, Major League Baseball, USADA and the U.S. Olympic Committee that has provided $1.3 million in grants for promising anti-doping research over the past two years.
The founders of the PCC, which delivers grants after receiving advice from a scientific advisory board, have different agendas on the subject.
"We're optimistic but realistic" about the possibility of a urine test, USADA CEO Travis Tygart said. "Right now, and for the foreseeable future, you have to collect blood to detect and deter HGH."
Baseball and football have long held out against blood tests, with leaders of their respective unions questioning the validity and effectiveness of the original isoforms test, which has been available since 2004 -- and on a wider basis since 2008.
Earlier this year, a British rugby player became the first athlete suspended for using HGH -- a development that proved the isoforms test could, indeed, catch cheaters.