Growth Hormone Detection Breakthrough


Karin Helmstaedt

LAUSANNE - A major breakthrough in drug testing was perhaps the only good news to come out of the World Conference on Doping in Sport-and that despite an IOC order to keep the news quiet.

Dr. Peter Sonksen, a professor of Endocrinology at St. Thomas' Hospital in London and member of the IOC Medical Commission, confirmed that he and a team of researchers have developed a test to detect human growth hormone (hGH) use.

"This discovery closes another important loophole in drug testing," said Dr. Sonksen in Lausanne. "At one stage we thought it was impossible, but we've made amazing progress in three years."

Dr. Sonksen is the leader of "GH 2000," a three-year research project set up in 1996 to develop a test for human growth hormone. Used for its muscle-building properties, hGH, along with other synthetically produced substances like erythropoetin and IGF-1, has for many years eluded scientists who have been unable to isolate it with traditional testing methods.

The GH 2000 project used US $2 million in funds provided jointly by the European Union and the International Olympic Committee. Research was conducted in England, Sweden, Denmark, and Italy, with the participation of two drug companies, Novonordisk and Pharmacia-Upjohn.

The test-done with blood from a fingertip or an earlobe-measures a series of protein markers that are present in blood and reflect changes under the influence of growth hormone. "In our research we've been using larger blood samples," said Dr. Sonksen, "but we see no problem with scaling that down. You don't need a lot of blood to do the test."

Dr. Sonksen presented his final paper with a conclusive test to the IOC on January 21. "We've shown that it's scientifically feasible (to test for growth hormone), but to turn it into a test which could be implemented and stand up in a court, it will take a while longer," he said.

The researchers had wanted to hold a press conference to announce the find, but the IOC and Prince Alexander de Merode said they needed time to review the report. While the IOC had been "scepticalÓ throughout the project, Dr. Sonksen said he felt they were pleased. "We've already been approached by the swimming federation FINA, who would like us to go to the world swimming championships in Hong Kong in April."

When pressed, Prince de Merode also admitted that Dr. Sonksen had found a test; he downplayed the find, however, saying that though he is not a "specialist," the test is "very interesting," but needs to be validated. "There must be more work done to prove that this test is viable, and to do that we need $5 million more."

As to where the money will come from, he shrugged and said, "Maybe the Agency. It is now up to the Agency to take care of these things." He figured it would be difficult to decide where the money would come from but said "it is a very urgent matter."

As to why he did not announce the find in Lausanne he said, "I've learned not to cry victory too early. It happened once before in 1992 that we were presented with a test for EPO that was very interesting, but was not legally viable. We announced it but ended up having to retract it."

Whether pilot schemes to implement the test will be up and running by April is questionable, but Dr. Sonksen is optimistic for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

"It's possible," he said. "We've got 18 months and I think that will be enough. But the IOC has to decide relatively quickly if we're to mobilize the funds. More money will be needed over the next months to do the work."