One of the controversies in the wake of Tuesday's Congressional hearing is over the existence of a viable test for human growth hormone. Commissioner Bud Selig told the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he would support a test for HGH "when a valid, commercially available and practical test for HGH becomes reality, regardless of whether the test is based on blood or urine."
It might not be long before Congress gets to see if Selig's word is worth its weight in blood. According to multiple sources who work in anti-doping, there has been a reliable blood-test for HGH for years -- it was used sparingly at the 2004 Athens Olympics and at the 2006 winter games in Torino -- and it should be widely commercially available within months.
In April of 2004, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency convened a meeting in Texas of about 80 doctors, lab workers and anti-doping researchers from around the world to discuss the prospects for a reliable HGH test. The consensus was that two methods for detecting synthetic HGH in blood already existed, and that one of them was ready for use.
The test that has been used is based on the fact that HGH in the body comes in three different structures, or "isoforms," each with a different mass. Most of the growth hormone molecules in an average person's body, 80-85% of them, weigh 22 kilodaltons. (What the heck is a kilodalton? Don't worry about what it is exactly, it's just a measure of the weight of molecules.)
The other 15-20% of the growth hormone in the body comes in other forms -- for example, the lighter, 20 kilodalton variety. The kind of synthetic HGH that athletes inject does not exactly mimic the natural HGH in their body. Rather, all of the synthetic HGH is comprised completely of those 22 kilodalton molecules, and none of the lighter variety. So if drug testers look at an HGH-doped athlete's blood, they can see too much of the heavy, 22 kilodalton form of HGH.
In Athens there were about 300 HGH tests done, and somewhat fewer than that were done in Torino. The problem was, testers ran out of an antibody, or type of protein, produced by a Berlin lab and needed to conduct the HGH test (the antibody isolates the heavy form of HGH so that testers can analyze it). Drug testers were left with a valid test, but not one that was commercially available, due to the lack of the specific protein needed to do the test.
Now, however, a different German lab has been producing the protein, and the test could be widely available in months, and anti-doping officials expect it to be used in Beijing.