By A.J. Perez, USA TODAY
Researchers have found a process that is the first to capture "a reliable detectable concentration" of human growth hormone from urine, according to an article appearing today in the journal Nano Research.
The peer-reviewed paper takes Lance Liotta and Emanuel "Chip" Petricoin, professors at George Mason University in suburban Washington, D.C., a step closer to providing anti-doping authorities a tool to catch athletes using synthetic human growth hormone. Synthetic HGH has long been thought to be one of the most popular performance-enhancing drugs.
"This is very big," Petricoin said. "People like those at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the World Anti-Doping Agency like to see rigorous science behind a test before it's accepted."
The existing test for synthetic human growth hormone, which aids in recovery and muscle development, involves blood samples. It has been used at the last three Olympics but has yet to flag an athlete. The NFL and Major League Baseball have funded research the last few years to find a urine test for HGH because such testing is seen as less invasive than blood testing.
"We are always excited about possible new technologies that may be developed that will advance anti-doping science for the benefit of clean athletes," USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in an e-mail Tuesday.
Liotta and Petricoin, both longtime cancer researchers, are newcomers on the anti-doping scene. In a lab at the Fairfax, Va.-based university's satellite campus in nearby Manassas, they have collaborated with scientists from Italy's Instituto Superiore di Sanita. Their efforts have resulted in the development of nanoparticles â€” objects about one-tenth the size of a red blood cell â€” to help identify HGH.
In their article, which was reviewed by at least two scientists before publication, the researchers write that "efforts have been made to detect hGH in urine, but â€¦ complexity of the (tests), and high costs involved have hindered (a) clinical urine test." By using the nanoparticles, however, Petricoin and Liotta were "able to capture, preserve and concentrate hGH in urine so that hGH can be determined" by readily available lab equipment.
"This goes a long way," Liotta says. "Those in the anti-doping field were asking, 'Who are these guys?' Now there has been a paper published so people can independently assess our work."
As part of their review process, editors at Nano Researchâ€” a journal that began publishing this year and covers the burgeoning field of engineering on an atomic and molecular scale â€” asked the George Mason professors to run additional tests and report the results, Liotta says.
"We have a very high reject rate," says Hongjie Dai, co-editor-in-chief of Nano Research and a chemistry professor at Stanford. "There's the same scrutiny" as that of better-known journals, such as The Journal of the American Medical Association.
The GMU researchers are seeking grants for a worldwide study in which they would collect urine from young adults to determine a baseline level of natural HGH in the body. They've been in talks with WADA, USADA and the Partnership for Clean Competition â€” a consortium of sports organizations, including MLB and the NFL, that funds anti-doping research.
"We have to get that normal baseline so we can prove somebody is taking HGH," Liotta said. "We have to be able to prove that an athlete hasn't been wrongly accused. To do the job, we need to know the true level of HGH in urine."