Staying Ahead of the Cheaters: A New Test for Human Growth Hormone

The war against performance-enhancing drugs is a bit like an arms race – scientists trying to stay one step ahead of each other. The newest advancement is a reliable test for HGH abuse.

I know this is a beat-to-death topic, but you have to admit, any breakthrough in drug testing for sports merits some discussion. After all, are we not attempting to level the playing field so performance-enhancing drug use becomes extinct? It probably won’t happen, but we have to keep trying. So, let’s take a look at the new test for human growth hormone.

Human growth hormone (HGH) is produced by the pituitary gland and stimulates growth in children and teens. Synthetic HGH is a popular performance-enhancing drug used purportedly to build muscle and improve athletic performance. HGH must be prescribed by a physician, but is not FDA approved for the performance-enhancing use.

For the past ten years, a group at the University of Southampton, entitled GH-2004, has been developing a test for HGH abuse in sport. It has been funded by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and supported by the United Kingdom Anti-Doping.

Sorry, bit I have to get technical here: the test is based on the measurement of two proteins in the blood. These two proteins act as markers of growth hormone use and increase the response to growth hormone:

  1. Insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-1)
  2. The amino terminal pro-peptide of type III collagen.

The good news is this test was used for the first time at the anti-doping laboratory for the 2012 London Paralympic Games. The International Paralympic Committee found two powerlifters tested positive for HGH. They received a two year suspension for violating the Anti-Doping Rule. This new test was able to detect the misuse of human growth hormone over a number of weeks, as compared to prior tests that only detected misuse over a shorter time period.

Professor David Cowan, head of the Drug Control Centre at King’s College London and Director of the anti-doping laboratory for the Games, had this say:

These findings prove that the years of research have been worthwhile. In partnership with the University of Southampton and Kent University, this has been one of the most complex scientific projects the Drug Control Centre at King’s has been involved in. To be able to carry out this test at this year’s Games is a huge achievement. It represents a big step forward in staying at the forefront of anti-doping science, to help deter drug misuse in sport.

In addition, WADA President John Fahey praised the test by saying:

The new test – which has been approved by WADA – was first introduced prior to the London 2012 Olympic Games, and we are confident that it will prove a significant tool in the fight against doping in sport. It will complement the test that has been in use since the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the major difference being that the anti-doping community now has a much longer detection window to work with.

Could this be the breakthrough to eliminate one hundred percent of the HGH users? If so, it will knock out one substance. But there are yet other abused performance-enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids, erythropoietin (EPO), chorionic gonadotropin (CG), luteinizing hormone (LH), insulin, corticotrophins, beta2-agonists, hormone and metabolic modulators, and diuretics and other masking agents that need to be eradicated.

I realize the sordid chemists are one step ahead of the virtuous testers, but this HGH test is at least a step forward.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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