Major League Baseball purchased full-page advertisements in major newspapers last week in which it announced the appointment of a prominent scientist to develop a urine test to detect human growth hormone. But other scientists are skeptical that such a test can be created for the relatively small amount of money baseball is pledging to invest so far.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said in the ad that athletes' use of human growth hormone "represents a threat to all sports everywhere." Selig added that "science can provide new ways to combat" players who use such banned performance boosters, and that baseball was naming Don Catlin of UCLA to conduct a study on detecting hGH.
Baseball has initially agreed to devote about $500,000 - an amount that Penn State University steroids expert Charles Yesalis called "chump change."
Another scientist, David Black, also said he expected a much larger investment would be required.
"I think it's certainly worth the effort; it is worthwhile," Black said. But he said Catlin faced a daunting task to develop a screening test, and that the amount baseball is talking about doesn't seem enough. "It might cost that much just to validate the method once it is developed," said Black, president of Tennessee-based Aegis Sciences Corp.
Gary Wadler, an expert on drugs in sports, agreed that more money likely would be required. "They're swimming upstream with a very limited budget," Wadler said.
Detecting hGH became more pressing after former Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Jason Grimsley was quoted in a recent federal affidavit as saying he and other players used the substance. HGH, which is on baseball's banned list, is available legally only by prescription. Another former Oriole, David Segui, said he used hGH with a prescription and informed the club about it in 2003.
Yesalis said professional sports administrators and Congress have known about hGH use by athletes for years. But the recent revelations have increased pressure on baseball to find ways to test players. MLB questions the reliability of a blood test for hGH that has been used on Olympic athletes.
Baseball defended its funding plan yesterday. "We gave him [Catlin] what he asked for," MLB spokesman Rich Levin said in an e-mail reply to a Sun query. "I'm sure we would contribute more funding if needed."
Catlin, who founded a UCLA laboratory in 1982 and has aided federal agents in investigating steroids in sports, said the funding amount was not yet set. "We are in the contract negotiation stage of the project," he said in an e-mail. "The exact figure is always the subject of negotiation."
Levin also said the deal was not quite final. "He [Catlin] is leaving UCLA and setting up his own lab, thus the delay. We [and Catlin] want to make sure the funding goes to him," Levin said.
Wadler said baseball would be making a mistake if it took no other action on hGH except to wait for the development of a urine test. Baseball might be waiting a long time, he said.
"I certainly applaud their efforts, as difficult as this appears to be," Wadler said. But he said roughly $5 million has already been spent on detecting hGH through various means over the past five to 10 years - a signal of the difficult task that lies ahead.
Synthetic hGH is hard to detect because "it is virtually identical to the real stuff already in your body," Black said. "To distinguish with some high degree of accuracy that someone is actually engaged in this practice puts a very high burden on the test that will be developed," he said.