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Researchers cite progress on HGH

November 11, 2008|Lance Pugmire | Pugmire is a Times staff writer.

The man described as the "guru of sports doping" and an East Coast cancer detection expert said they're on the way to establishing a urine test for human growth hormone that could close a drug-testing loophole experts described Monday as a "widespread" problem in sports.

Don Catlin, a Los Angeles-based worldwide doping expert who oversaw blood testing for HGH at the Beijing Olympics, and Dr. Lance Liotta, a former pathology lab chief at the National Cancer Institute's Center for Cancer Research, have launched a study to build upon Liotta's ability to identify isolated markers of HGH in urine.

"This is a groundbreaking step that'll change the game a bit," Catlin said Monday at a first-ever Growth Hormone Summit staged at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Although baseball's union has maintained resistance to submitting players to HGH blood tests, the breakthrough has excited anti-doping and baseball officials who attended Monday's meeting.

Catlin's anti-doping research is entering the third year of work on a three-year, $450,000 grant by Major League Baseball to establish whether an HGH urine test is possible. He received identical funding from the NFL players' union.

Baseball officials who weren't allowed to discuss the situation publicly told The Times the Catlin-Liotta partnership now is poised to be "at the front of the line" when the Partnership for Clean Competition -- consisting of MLB, NFL and the U.S. Olympic Committee -- begins to distribute funds from a pool of $10 million later this year.

Liotta, a professor at George Mason University, said he has arranged a study of students there that will analyze their natural HGH levels in blood and urine. The study will seek to establish a baseline standard that can be compared for instances when an abundance of synthetic HGH, prescribed mostly for AIDS patients and individuals with dwarfism, is found in the system.

Cautioning that such research is conducted "in fits and starts," UCLA professor Gary Green, the summit director who serves as MLB's consultant on performance-enhancing drugs, said a realistic timeline for HGH urine testing would be the 2012 Summer Games in London.

The clock will tick amid abuses, summit attendees warned.

"Growth hormone promotes muscle mass and reduces fat mass . . . and is widely used by athletes," Dr. Richard I.G. Holt of England's University of Southampton said.

World Anti-Doping Agency senior manager Osquel Barroso said that in light of the current situation, when synthetic HGH leaves the system in 36 hours or less, WADA will advise its worldwide Olympic partners to conduct increased out-of-competition testing.

Summit expert Dr. Thomas Perls, a Boston University associate professor of medicine who has worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency and Department of Justice, said the use of HGH for anti-aging purposes and athletic enhancement by a reported 200,000 in this country has emerged as "a big public health threat." He described the public distribution of HGH as "a mafia-like drug-trafficking ring," and said it's "setting [users] up for cardiovascular disasters."

But Gene Orza, the baseball union's chief operating officer, repeated that players aren't prepared to join the Olympians who submitted to blood tests.

"No one should have complete faith in a test that has not produced a positive result in 8,500 tests," Orza said at the summit. "If there is a scientifically valid test for HGH, the players will get together and decide how they want to respond. My suspicion is they will adopt it. But they won't be pushed into accepting something as scientifically valid before it is."

Catlin admitted that although International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said last week that he expected more positive doping results to emerge in re-testing of samples provided by Beijing athletes, he does not expect an HGH positive to occur.

Green had earlier reinforced to attendees that a positive drug test isn't confirmed until it clears arbitration.

Southland attorney Howard Jacobs, who defended cyclist Floyd Landis in his doping case after Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title, said the summit raised "a lot of questions" that he would likely explore if he ever represents an HGH-positive client. "They haven't validated any positive athlete samples," Jacobs said. "You have to wonder how many studies they've conducted, plus there's collection and transport issues."

Yet, Catlin described Liotta's work as the most significant breakthrough for HGH urine testing.

"This is fairly straightforward, analytical chemistry," Liotta said. "If we can reliably measure the HGH, we're on our way."

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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