Drug Testing for HGH: Scientifically Valid or Just Politically Correct?
By Patrick C. English, Esq.
The Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather debacle has led to an incredible amount of posturing and, as a result, misinformation and incomplete information. This posturing has been under the guise of a campaign for a drug-free sport, something we all favor. But the posturing obscures the scientific truth.
First, the best experts in the field report know there is no good test for HGH. At present, there is no urine test that works. And Dr. Don H. Caitlin, head of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab and for many years one of the most knowledgeable experts in the area - possibly the most knowledgeable – has stated that he believes blood testing is impractical. He points out that, out of 1,500 blood tests, only one came back positive for HGH, despite a well-founded suspicion that HGH use is far more prevalent. In part, this is because the detection limit is short, about 24 hours. In other words, the athlete would have had to use HGH within approximately 24 hours of the test to actually be caught.
Further, the one athlete who was “busted” for HGH, after testing, admitted to using it. Many scientists do not believe that, if it came to proving the scientific validity of the WADA drug testing protocols for HGH in court or before an arbitrator, the results would survive legal challenge based upon scientific validity. Dr. Peter Sonksen, a pioneer in the field of HGH testing, says, “There’s very little new [data verifying the WADA test], and I think it would be quite easy for a lawyer to draw “cart and horses through it in court.” This charge is echoed by epidemiologist Dr. Charles E. Yesalis of Penn State, who contends that the scientific data to back the testing protocols is insufficient to the point of being “almost criminal.”
Dr. Caitlin has said flatly that the method of testing used by WADA “alone doesn’t work. It’s political. The whole thing is political.”
Further, anyone who has ever been involved in Olympic-style testing knows its flaws and limitations. Blood tests, if done randomly, are exceedingly infrequent. Athletes who are subject to in-and-out-of-competition testing go years with no blood tests (though urine testing is another matter).
Further, unannounced Olympic-style testing involves a level of intrusion that few professional athletes can or would countenance. As an example, spur-of-the-moment activities must be reported to WADA, according to the rules, 24 hours in advance. If an athlete decides to go to the shore on a sunny day, to go to assist a friend, or any of the plethora of activities of which we all partake every week, it must be reported to WADA in advance. This is tough enough to do with college athletes, more or less captive on campuses and virtually impossible with professionals with normal lives. In recognition of its difficulty, athletes are permitted to miss three tests due to unavailability before action is taken. That brings us right back to the testing protocols. If HGH is detectable for only 24 hours, all an athlete needs to do is to arrange to be unavailable for testing the following day. Chances are overwhelmingly small that any test will be taken the following day. But if one is to be taken, the athlete can simply make himself unavailable that day without penalty.
Further, the Olympic process is slow. The example of one Olympic level athlete is illustrative. Jessica Hardy, a swimmer, gave a urine sample on July 4, 2008. It was not until July 23 that she was notified of the failed drug test. She initially challenged the result and thus had the right to a hearing. That hearing began on August 1, 2008, when she withdrew her challenge. Thus it took approximately three weeks before she was even notified (resulting from the need to test the “B” sample) and four weeks before the matter was resolved. The Hardy matter involved a steroid with established scientific validity and an admission. If, as claimed by Dr. Sonksen, there are flaws in the methodology for HGH testing, a legal challenge will take very considerably longer.
Whether Jessica Hardy was allowed to compete or not, the Olympics were going to proceed and her situation had no impact on its promotion. However, the same is not true of a boxing promotion. We have seen far too many situations when results from an “A” sample and from a “B” sample do not correspond (thus both need to be tested) and even situations from reputable labs where contamination, later discovered, made results unreliable. This is why the due process of a hearing is necessary. By the time this is completed, a boxing event will have either already taken place or been irretrievably destroyed.
Drs. Caitlin, Sonksen and Yesalis are not advocates for abuse of drugs in sport. To the contrary, they are respected researchers who have done much to attempt to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs in sport. Dr. Caitlin heads the most respected drug testing laboratory in the United States and developed the test which broke the BALCO scandal. Dr. Sonksen is a fellow of the Royal Society of Physicians with some 315 scientific publications, many on this very topic. Dr. Yesalis co-authored the first comprehensive surveys of teen steroid use.
Caitlin, Sonksen, and others are working on legitimate, more reliable tests for HGH. While it may appear politically correct and provide a good “sound bite” to jump on the bandwagon for drug-free sports, the truth is that the blood testing suggested for HGH is, at best, limited and impractical and, at worst, scientifically suspect. Efforts should be toward developing tests that work and then implementing them; not in pretending that there are good and generally accepted scientifically valid testing techniques when there are not.
Patrick C. English, Esq. is an attorney with the firm of Dines and English, L.L.C. He has handled numerous matters involving drug testing and drug testing protocols, both on behalf of athletes, as well as defending testing protocols.