NEW YORK -- A scientist who has worked to develop a urine test for human growth hormone says the blood test baseball plans to use for minor leaguers can only detect the substance for 6 to 12 hours.
Don Catlin said Friday that the test, announced a day earlier by baseball commissioner Bud Selig, is of limited use. In February, a British rugby league player became the first athlete suspended following a positive HGH test.
"The fact that it's been around for a few thousand tests and only one positive suggests that either there's much less growth hormone being used than we thought, which is doubtful, or the period of detectability is really pretty short -- a few hours. It's probably the latter," said Catlin, adding detection probably would work only with "middle-of-the-night testing."
Players with minor league contracts will be given the blood test, which Selig called "a significant step."
Victor Conte, whose Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative triggered a federal investigation of steroids use and distribution among athletes, also criticized the blood test. He said it would detect little and called it "flawed" because baseball will collect only postgame blood samples.
"It wouldn't take much of an IQ for a player to circumvent this proposed HGH testing procedure," he wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "A baseball player could possibly inject HGH as soon as leaving a ballpark and test negative from a blood sample collected postgame the following day. HGH injections are routinely done at night before bed, so a morning blood sample would be the target. The available test for HGH requires a random blood collection protocol to be considered anything more than a PR move by MLB."
Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president of labor relations, said baseball was taking whatever steps it could.
"We are using the best available technology for the detection of HGH," he said.
Gary Wadler, who leads the World Anti-Doping Agency committee that determines the banned-substances list, said any test is better than none. Plus, he said HGH likely will be detected by it.
"It's not the kind of drug you take once and now you get tested weeks later, it's gone," he said. "Sure, it will be gone. But that's not how you use it. You use it, you basically take it every day. So the detection window becomes less important in something you take on a regular basis."
And he argues testing will make athletes think harder about using.
"It does work. It is a deterrent," he said. "Even though it's not anywhere near where we are with steroid testing, it's sufficiently developed and validated to say it should be incorporated into anti-drug testing."
Because no independent data on the HGH test has been published, no steps have been taken toward implementing it for unionized players on 40-man major league rosters. The current drug plan and labor contract run until December 2011, but the Major League Baseball Players Association has said it would agree to a validated urine test for HGH.
"I think they're starting it in the minor leagues to make sure there are no flaws," said San Diego pitcher Heath Bell, the Padres player representative. "If it was a urine test, I think we'd be all for it. And if it's a blood test, you can't tell a guy who's going to pitch nine innings or play nine innings, 'Here, I need a little vial of blood first,' because some guys get a little queasy."
"That's how it's always been," he said. "But at the same time, if it helps us get to a point where you test, I'm all for it."
Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon predicted use of the test eventually will expand to the big leagues.
"I think it is a wise decision to start there," he said. "I believe that eventually it will progress to this level -- after we make sure we work out all the kinks. We have to find out what works, what doesn't."
Catlin was critical of WADA for not allowing independent analysis of the HGH test.
"I can't go to the literature and read a scientific article that gives me the data," he said. "WADA will have that, but they don't display it. So I think the only way we are ever going to see if it an athlete chooses to contest a positive test result, and then they'll have to show it to pursue or to prevail in court."
The current isoform test scans blood for synthetic HGH. Wadler said there soon may be a marker test that could be used in conjunction with the first one, similar to how testosterone/epitestosterone (T/E) ratio tests are used in conjunction with carbon isotope tests to detect the difference between natural and artificial testosterone.
Catlin abandoned his attempt to develop a test based on mass spectrometry and amino acids because not enough HGH was present in urine. He needs a commitment of $1 million to $2 million to attempt to develop a urine test based on aptamers, molecules that act similar to antibodies. His abandoned test received $900,000 in funding.
He said it would take about three years to create the new test, and he hasn't yet started discussions with MLB and the NFL on whether they would like to fund the study.
Validity of any test is a chief concern.
"There can be a lot of backlash because of a false test that gets out and all of a sudden a player is labeled and he never did anything," Pirates manager John Russell said. "That's tough to get over. So I think the integrity of how they do it is going to be the main thing. If they can do it where it's proper and it's done the right way, I'm sure it will get in."