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IOC Closes in on Test for Performance-Enhancing Hormone

January 30, 1996

LONDON (AP) _ Scientists from around the world are pooling their efforts to develop a drug test that could revolutionize the fight against doping in sports.

Olympic officials are launching a $2.6 million multi-national campaign to find a reliable system for detecting human growth hormone, the performance-enhancing drug of choice among athletes.

While it is not expected to be ready for this summer’s Olympics in Atlanta, 40-50 experts are meeting in London over the weekend to compare notes and join forces in implementing an accurate test for the banned hormone, which so far has proved undetectable through urine testing.

In the continual cat-and-mouse game between drug testers and drug users, the cheats have stayed ahead by finding new methods and products to beat the system.

With steroids readily detectable these days, athletes have increasingly turned to human growth hormone in the knowledge they won’t be caught. The hormone, known as hGH, can increase lean body mass and strength.

``It is certainly the most misused drug because it cannot be detected,″ said Jacques Rogge, vice chairman of the International Olympic Committee medical commission. ``You find hGH in every sport. It’s now the substitute for anabolic steroids.″

HGH, which can be administered orally or by injection, can be obtained on the doping black market. There have also been reports of hGH disappearing from hospitals in apparent robberies.

The IOC and the European Union are each contributing $1.3 million to the hGH project. It’s the most extensive funding ever provided for doping control research.

``We hope this will give us a breakthrough,″ Rogge said.

Laboratories in Britain, Sweden, Italy, Denmark and Switzerland are involved in the project, which is under the direction of Peter H. Sonksen of St. Thomas’ Hospital in London.

European national Olympic committees have agreed to provide athletes to volunteer blood samples as part of the testing research, Rogge said.

Prince Alexandre de Merode, chairman of the IOC medical commission, said he will urge international sports federations to carry out trials at their competitions.

Despite some reports to the contrary, de Merode virtually ruled out the possibility of having an hGH test ready in time for use at this summer’s Atlanta Olympics.

``Certainly not, in my opinion,″ he said in a telephone interview. ``We’re just starting research and it should take a minimum of three years.″

Mindful of the rash of lawsuits filed by athletes over disputed positive drug findings, de Merode said, the IOC wants to make sure the test is foolproof before introducing it at the Olympics.

``We must have 100 percent certitude,″ he said. ``More and more lawyers are coming in. We must remember the Olympic Games are not a place for experiments. They are a place for sport.″

The London meeting was called to unify the scientific effort following reports of rivalry among the several drug-testing labs involved in hGH research.

Dr. Marcel Saugy, deputy director of the IOC-accredited lab in Lausanne, Switzerland, reported last year that his lab had developed a test and that it might be validated before the Atlanta Games.

But Saugy’s claims were not endorsed by the IOC or other labs.

``I was a little bit astonished to hear that,″ de Merode said. ``Until now, we don’t have any papers concerning their work on this subject.″

Saugy, in a separate interview, acknowledged that his statements had irritated the IOC.

``It is a misunderstanding which we regret,″ he said. ``We have been told that it is better to work together. We agree with that. Now it’s good to have this conference to put everything together and work towards the future.″

Saugy is among the experts invited to the London gathering. Because of the sensitivity over the issue, the scientists involved in the project have agreed to refrain from publicly discussing their work.

Because human growth hormone occurs naturally in the body, the challenge is finding a way to detect when doses of hGH have been artificially admiministered to boost performance.

``We are trying to determine what is the normal pattern of excretion of human growth hormone,″ Rogge said. ``Not everyone has the same level. You have to measure the physiological changes to prove that what you find in urine or blood is artificial.″

A similar process was used to develop a test for testosterone, another naturally-occurring hormone which can be administered as a steroid. Abormal levels of testosterone are measured in relation to epitestosterone; the normal ratio is 1:1 and anything above 6:1 is considered a doping offense.

``It is the usual game of poacher and game keeper,″ Rogge said. ``From time to time, we close the gap, as we did with testosterone. It’s now more or less impossible to misuse it without getting caught. Now we have to close the gap with growth hormone and EPO.″

EPO, or Erythropoietin, is another performance-enhancing hormone that cannot be detected by traditional urine tests. EPO increases endurance by boosting the production of red blood cells.

Researchers have been working for several years to perfect a test for EPO. Initial trials involved blood testing, but scientists now are focusing on identifying the hormone in urine samples.

Labs in Italy and Sweden have reported promising results so far. While no one is predicting when an EPO test will be ready for use, experts agree it will likely be before an hGH procedure is implemented.

``The gap is being closed fairly fast,″ Rogge said. ``The scientists have discovered how to trace EPO, but the problem is from a legal point of view. The test must be absolutely foolproof.″

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