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Friday, February 08, 2008

A drug conspiracy? Growth Hormone test

Drug conspiracy? Or administrative bungling? How a potential test for growth hormone slipped through the cracks (and it's possible rescue)

Well, first off, apologies again for the long absence between posts - it's been a frantic period of travel and work (and nothing in particular) and as a result, we've slowed right down in our posting sequence!

I (Ross) spent a large part of the last week and a half working my way steadily across the USA, beginning in Boulder where I was lucky enough to meet some of the local running community and was also blown away by some of the ideas and technology emerging from what must be one of THE meccas for endurance sport - but more on that in a future post. Then I moved progressively along the Grand Canyon, down to Phoenix for the Superbowl (condolences to Pats fans) and ended up in Vegas (which is just untrue - could have sworn I was in a theme park).

In any event, the result of the travels is that we've beena bit slow off the mark on a couple of really interesting stories, but as they say, better late than never! And one of the most interesting ones was this report from last weekend's Telegraph, in which a possible improved test for Growth Hormone is discussed.

The test - 8 years in waiting, while drug cheats prospered

The story concerns Professor Peter Sonksen, an endocrinologist (an expert in hormones) from London's St Thomas hospital, who was working to develop a reliable test for growth hormone prior to the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

As regular readers and any other followers of sport will know, growth hormone is a huge problem among elite atheltes, precisely because it has never really been possible to test for it! The confirmed or alleged use of growth hormone has some high-profile athletes linked to it...think of growth hormone, and you may think of the following athletes:

  • Marion Jones - it was one of the drugs in her "cocktail" at BALCO
  • Lance Armstrong - never "proven", but it was testified at a court case that he'd admitted to its use (among other substances) when questioned by doctors during his treatment for cancer
  • Willy Voet and the Festina cycling team - in 1998, the first of the current series of drugs tidal waves broke when Voet was arrested carrying hundreds of vials of growth hormone in his car
  • Jan Ullrich - alleged to have been given growth hormone as part of his 'treatment' by doctors in the now infamous Operacion Puerto scandal
  • Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite - most recently, baseball was rocked by a scandal involving growth hormone (and steroids), with two of its big name pitchers being named in the Mitchell report. Clemens, for his part, denies using, while Pettite and trainer McNamee have confessed and implicated Clemens. This one should be really interesting, because someone is committing perjury!
There are other big names, but the point is, growth hormone is one of the most widely used drugs, because of it's undetectablity! And the second point is that because there's never been a reliable test, athletes who are accused can simply deny its use to millions, without any fear of being caught out.

So, when the reports emerge that Professor Sonksen has basically perfected a test for Growth Hormone in 2000, prior to the Sydney Olympics, one has to wonder what sequence of events took place to keep that test off the "market" for 8 years!

Because that's the summary of what has happened - Sonksen perfected his test in time for the Sydney Olympics, and promptly had his funding and support from WADA and the IOC withdrawn, and they chose to use another test for Growth Hormone instead. The test they chose is able to detect Growth Hormone in the blood for up to 24 hours after its use. Sonksen's test is able to detect markers of Growth Hormone use for 2 weeks - clearly, given the fact that athletes are now so advanced in their use of doping, the two week option is the better one.

The reason - it may be valid, but why settle for a second rate test?

Now, it's speculative to guess why the IOC and WADA would have chosen the way they did. These stories and decisions are never as simple as they appear with the benefit of hindsight, and WADA and the IOC may have had very good reason to pull support from Sonksen and go with the (now recognised) inferior test. Perhaps they felt that the proximity of the Sydney Games meant the test would not stand up to their legal requirements for a valid test, who knows? This would certainly be a good reason not to use the test in Sydney.

However, what is a mystery is why would they not continue to support the research and the efforts of a laboratory which was clearly very close to the answer? It may not have been useful in Sydney, but they seem to have been so close to an answer, why not pursue it a little further after Sydney? Instead, they settled on a test that only detects Growth Hormone for 24 hours. As a result, we've had a situation where for nine years, all the athletes ever implicated as using Growth Hormone can deny, deny, deny, and only Jones' confession confirms her use of it!

If the Growth Hormone problem is that large, which anyone but for the willfully ignorant (and Pat McQuaide, president of world cycling) will acknowledge, then why not plough money into perfecting the test? Why settle for a test that works for 14 days? Perhaps with more funding, Prof Sonksen would have been able to develop the test that was effective for 30?

The reason the athletes are "one step ahead" of the testers

Of course, in times like these, rumours will abound, ranging from administrative bungling to "conspiracy and cover-up". And while only those within WADA and the IOC know the true extent, what we will say is that given the battle on our hands to save the sport's credibility, and given that we are continuously bemoaning the fact that the athletes seem to stay one step ahead of the testers, it's astonishing that it takes 9 years for part of the SOLUTION to make its way to the testers!

In this particular case, it's not that they were one step ahead, it's that the governing body of the sport and it's anti-doping regulators were simply fast asleep or looking the other way! It's hardly surprising that athletes are a step ahead, when it takes 9 years and the intervention of the UK Sports authorities to push the test back into the spotlight.

But now, thanks to those efforts, the test MIGHT be ready in time for Beijing. Currently, WADA and UK sport are involved in meetings to get the test through the obvious legal requirements.

Sadly, however, it's likely that this test, if it's passed, will simply mean that athletes and their "support teams" will have to work a tiny bit harder to come up with the alternative to Growth Hormone. One gets the impression, based on this sequence of events, that it won't be too difficult to do...

Other sports news - some tiny soundbytes

And then finally, just to wrap up today's post (and to make up for lost posting!), some very brief sports stories that grabbed my attention in the last day or two.

First of all, in Men's Hurdles, Cuba's Dayron Robles is having a spectacular start to the 2008 Indoor season. The reason this is interesting is because at this Summer's Beijing Olympics, one of THE BIG EVENTS is going to be the Men's 110m Hurdles final. That's because it involves the Chinese favourite Liu Xiang. Liu has been the poster boy for the Beijing Olympics - he is China's huge hope for a track and field medal, and has been under massive pressure for about the last 3 or 4 years.

But towards the end of last year, his "lead" over the rest of the world has started to erode, and in particular, it's Robles of Cuba who now poses a huge threat to him. The significance of Robles' early form is that in indoor racing over 60m, the athlete with the fastest start tends to dominate. So Robles' ability indoors suggests that his start and first 40m is a strength. This, in turn, will put pressure on Liu (assuming Robles produces that form in Beijing) and should make for a great race. Liu is already carrying a billion people's hopes on his shoulders - the prospect of Robles 2 m in front of him at the 60m mark is one to look forward to! In our "Review of 2007" post, we gave Liu Xiang the tongue-in-cheek "Losing sleep over the future award". Well, given Robles' early season form, he might yet retain that award in 2008!

Bekele going for indoor 3000m record

Then, in other news, this weekend sees Kenenisa Bekele gunning for the world indoor 3000m record in Valencia, Spain. The record currently stands at 7:24.90, by Daniel Komen of Kenya.

The reason this is so interesting is not only because Bekele is shooting for a massive PB - his current outdoor PB is only 7:25.79, so he's going to have to run faster indoors than he ever has outdoors - tough ask!

Rather, the reason this is interesting is because it suggests that Bekele's focus early in 2008 has again been on the shorter distance, speed-oriented events. Last year, I think it was really noticeable after his loss at the World Cross-country championships, that he came back and reeled off a string of fast times over 3000m and 15000m, running PB's in both distances. However, I feel his longer distance form was not quite as good - his victory in Osaka, while spectacular, was a 'fragile' one, and then he didn't look as strong in some other 10000m events.

So my suspicion is that after his loss, his focus changed to shorter events and perhaps his training to include more speed. It would appear that this remains a goal. That will be encouraging to Tadese and the Kenyans who take him on in Beijing over 10,000m, since they may well be able to find a vulnerability in the longer race. At least, in theory, that's what might happen!

But we'll let you know the results of his world record attempt - my prediction, by the way - he will run 7:27, maybe a low 7:28!



Anonymous said...

"Lance Armstrong - never "proven", but testified at a court case that he'd admitted to its use (among other substances) when questioned by doctors during his treatment for cancer"

I thought it was the wife of a teammate who testified to that.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jumbanho

Yes, it was - ambiguous sentence, my apologies. The sentence is meant to read that "it was testified", not that Armstrong himself testified. That did come across a little unclearly. The sentence was written in the "passive voice", in my defence, but I've made a change to the original to clarify this.

Thanks for the pickup!


Anonymous said...

Ross and Nathan,

I did a little research into the history of Sonksen's test. It seems his quest for an additional $5 million in 1999, when WADA was being started with only $25 million, may have hurt his chances. Sonksen did have a second HGH program funded by WADA and USADA, starting in 2004. Dick Pound said about the subject in 2000:

"We're not prepared to sit around and throw a limited amount of resources just down the tube on the basis that some scientist says, 'With just another $1 million, I can discover the cure for everything'."

It's an interesting story, I posted my own look into the subject at the Daily Peloton Forums. You can check it out here:


Thanks for the link to the Telegraph story. Great job with the blog.

Here's the link in pieces, in case it gets cut off by the comments software:

Anonymous said...

Oops, I meant Jonathan. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

There is more than enough money in world sport - the limited funding to WADA maybe shows how much the sports administration bodies don't really want these sorts of things tested for and exposed...... cynical maybe, but I'm just trying to hold on to my love of sport at the moment, there doesn't seem to be much respect for the fan anymore - at any level.

Would you guys be able to do a post on the merits of the cycling biological passport at some stage. Is this sort of blood profiling a possible solution to identify external manipulation that ensures cheating athletes are removed from the competition - whether or not a 'positive' test for a known banned substance is obtained?

Thanks for the blog.

The Sports Scientists said...

Hi Jonathan from Australia,

Thanks for visiting us on The Science of Sport.

Your suggestion for a post about the biological passport is an excellent one, and thanks so much for putting it forward here.

You are correct in your conclusion about world sporting bodies and fighting drug abuse. There is plenty of money available amongst governments, clubs, players and owners to contribute to the battle. That none have come forth in any meaningful way can only mean that they are indeed not interested.

You call yourself a cynic, and perhaps rightly so, but there is no shame in this at all. In the current era it is important to see sports with both eyes open. You can still appreciate the competition while interpreting the results with some caution and cynicism.

Thanks again for your suggestion, and we hope to see you more often.

Kind Regards,
Jonathan (from Chicago!)

Anonymous said...

"growth hormone is a huge problem among elite atheltes"

"If the Growth Hormone problem is that large,..."

Very punny!

- Ray

Tammy said...

Just dropped in for your opinion of this new finding on muscle fatigue. I just read about it in the Science Times (NY Times). It's an exciting day for exercise science-geeks everywhere. Here's the link, but I'm sure you're already all over it Riddle of Muscle Fatigue

Anonymous said...

I've been a fan for quite a while but not sure if I've commented yet. I would also like to know your take on the NY Times article. I posted on it and threw a few questions out about it here.

I also noticed you follow Kenenisa Bekele's running fairly closely. I made a "fan lens" that I'm hoping to make more complete. Any interesting info you could contribute would be much appreciated!

Great job with this blog, guys. It's one of my favorites!

Jenn said...

Thankyou for addressing this issue.
I am an Australian scientist who was part of the GH2000 group and did the original study injecting GH into athletes and defining the preliminary dope testing hypothesis. Isoforms of GH was one of the many approaches investigated. Once the results were out one of the investigators with an assay for GH isoforms cut loose from the group organised commercial production of his antibodies and announced him self as the discoverer of the test for GH doping detection. WADA subsequently supported and promoted him and this may be one of the reasons why the more enduring markers of rhGH abuse were not immediately embraced. Once lack of funding was withdrawn I found myself notified that my appointment at the University of Queensland would not be renewed "due to lack of funding". Proposals to the US Anti Doping Agency were rejected. It has taken me this long living in poverty and continually attempting to find some funding or support to get back into the GH Doping Arena. Despite the IOC asking me to write a chapter on Doping in Sport for their Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine, which I wrote and they published, I was never invited to any meetings to discuss moving forward with a GH detection test. It is interesting that things have turned full circle and the report to the IOC in 2000 is still considered to be the difinitive detection science. I published 4 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism papers detailing the markers of GH which proved useful for rhGH detection. You can find out more by logging in to my website at www.aghdaware.org pressing the "Founder" button and accessing my CV for an extensive list of publications and conference proceedings which resulted from my several years of working on a dope detection methodology. Sincerely, Jennifer Wallace.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jenn,

Thanks for posting your comments and your side of this story here.

As fellow scientists we sympathize with you on the funding issue, and I am discouraged by the situation in which you have found yourself for the past eight years. Too many times the path of research is littered with stories like yours.

I would be very interested to know, cynicism aside, your opinion on the current GH assay and its effectiveness. Do you think it will work to catch anyone this year? Also, considering all the red tape and other issues such as you have mentioned, where do you think we are in the race against the GH cheats, and how long do you think it will be until we have an effective test?

Thanks so much again for visiting.

Kind Regards,