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Do You Trust HGH Tests?

Major League Baseball announced expansion of its drug testing program Thursday, as the league and the players union have modified the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program to provide for unannounced, random blood testing for HGH (human growth hormone) during the regular season. From the league’s press release:

Today’s announcement marks another significant step in the progression of Baseball’s HGH testing policy, which continues to be the strongest in American professional sports. Since July 2010, Major League Baseball has conducted random blood testing for the detection of hGH among Minor League players. As a part of the 2012-2016 Basic Agreement, the parties agreed to blood testing for hGH during 2012 Spring Training, during the off-season, and for reasonable cause, making Baseball the first sport to deploy this kind of testing at its highest level. Under the new agreement, all of those aspects of the Program will continue, and there will be in-season, unannounced, random blood testing.

Both baseball and the players union seem to take great pride in the stringent nature of the testing program. As MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner added, “Players want a program that is tough, scientifically accurate, backed by the latest proven scientific methods, and fair; I believe these changes firmly support the Players’ desires while protecting their legal rights.”

This agreement comes as the National Football League and the NFL Players Association carry on a fight over a similar agreement in Congress. The Players Association’s gripes with the protocol is clear: they don’t trust the tests as the NFL presents them. Union spokesman George Atallah laid it out:

The players agreed to HGH testing in the CBA because they believe in a clean game. They did not, however, agree to an artificial timeline to impose a testing protocol that has no transparency in the underlying science nor a fair due process that is outlined.

From the same article, we get the argument from the NFL. United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) Chief Science Officer Larry Bowers said “there is a broad consensus among scientific experts who regularly work in the growth hormone field” that the test is reliable and valid. National Institues of Health Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak offered written testimony as well. Despite differences from naturally occurring HGH and artificial HGH being “virtually indistinguishable” and the fact that “questions can always be raised” about the reliability of any scientific test, Tabak’s testimony noted “many studies vouch for the reliability” of HGH testing.

All of this sounds fantastic. However, the USADA is the organization with the most to gain from the initiation of the testing program — all of this would mean more work for USADA labs, and therefore more money. The support of Tabak seems to be from a solid outside source, but his medical training is not in endocrinology or anything else related to performance enhancing drugs. Instead, Tabak is a dentist whose previous appointment was at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. His testimony — as noted above — merely noted other experts and the fact that scientific uncertainty is impossible to completely attain.

The other experts, in this case, would appear to be other anti-doping scientists. The test in question is the one mentioned in this AP story, a test that increases labs’ capabilities from testing only the past 72 hours to testing the past 10-21 days. According to the story, the test “won strong consensus among doping scientists and experts from around the world who attended a London symposium.” Again, this is a group which largely contains doctors and scientists who would appear to have something to gain from the test gaining a foothold in a league like the NFL (or MLB).

Luckily, we probably won’t have to worry about it effecting MLB too much. As Bowers noted, there have only been 12 positive tests out of the 12,764 conducted across the world. As such, I agree with what Ben Badler of Baseball America tweeted earlier today:

It particularly strikes me as a PR move considering the questions surrounding HGH’s actual effects. HGH’s takeoff was propelled by a study finding significant effects on a population of 60-year-olds at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

At the end of the six-month treatment period, the test subjects had denser bones, thicker skin, less fat, and more lean body tissue. The paper likened these effects to a reversal of “10 to 20 years of aging.”

But, as the linked article elaborates, the study is filled with problems when we try to apply the same findings to 20-30 year old athletes. HGH levels decline as we age to the point where 60-year-olds produce half as much HGH as they did 40 years prior. The effects could be more about replacing HGH than about adding more. Additionally, the improvements seem to do more for muscle definition than muscle strength and had little effect on cardiovascular fitness.

So what we see here appears — to my admittedly skeptical self, at least — less MLB and MLBPA joining hands to do what is right and rid the game of a great evil and more an appeal to doping fears and the court of public opinion. Personally, I just hope its intrusion into the game is minimal.