Baseball Considers Human Growth Hormone Tests

Major League Baseball's Mitchell Report puts a spotlight on the growing use of human growth hormone. One reason: Baseball doesn't test for the substance. But that could change if the union representing players overcomes its resistance to blood testing, or researchers develop a urine test.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

All-Star pitcher Roger Clemens said yesterday he has never taken banned performance-enhancing drugs. Clemens is the most prominent player named in the Mitchell Report on doping in Major League Baseball. The report was released last week. Several other players named in the report have admitted using banned drugs.

Mr. FERNANDO VINA (Former Second Baseman, St. Louis Cardinals): You know, I tried everything, rehabbing - and it came to a point, you know, I was desperate.

YDSTIE: Former infielder Fernando Vina said on ESPN, Monday, he took human growth hormone to help recover from injuries. As the focus shifts to growth hormone, it's raising questions about this apparent drug of choice.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: The Mitchell Report says Fernando Vina got human growth hormone and steroids from a former New York Mets clubhouse attendant. Monday on ESPN, Vina said part of that was true.

Mr. VINA: I never used steroids, all I used was HGH. I tried that like I said for injuries. I knew my role as a player. It wasn't to get big and strong.

GOLDMAN: Pitcher Andy Pettitte, one of the big names in the report, acknowledged last weekend he got a couple of HGH injections in 2002 for an injured elbow. I felt an obligation to get back to my team as soon as possible, he said in a statement. I wasn't looking for an edge.

Indeed a pattern has emerged in these first few days since the Mitchell Report came out. Players are drawing a distinct line between steroids, bad and selfish, - and human growth hormone, not so bad and something players takes so he can help his team.

Dr. GARY WADLER (Anti-Doping Expert; Associate Professor of Medicine, NYU School of Medicine): These people who think they can take growth hormone with impunity that it's some lesser thing, the anabolic steroids is just frankly a dangerous and misguided.

GOLDMAN: Anti-doping expert Dr. Gary Wadler is an associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine.

Dr. WADLER: In either case, you're injecting a hormone into your muscles. In both, cases you're violating the law.

GOLDMAN: Federal law and baseball law. Growth hormone wasn't banned in the game until 2005. But a 1971 policy prohibited players from using any prescription medication without a valid prescription. Wadler says it's wrong to draw a line between steroids and growth hormone. But even he admits there are differences in what's known about each substance.

In 1996, a notable study offers solid data showing anabolic steroids enhanced athletic performance. No such definitive data exists for growth hormone, as to whether it enhances performance or heals injuries in healthy athletes.

In his mea culpa, Fernando Vina said, he didn't think HGH helped that much. Still there are anecdotes and rumors of its power, and players are said to be flocking to the drug. A big part of the reason is that baseball doesn't test for HGH. There isn't a urine test for it.

But researcher Don Catlin says he's getting closer to developing one.

Dr. DON CATLIN (Executive Officer, Anti-Doping Research Institute in Los Angeles): The fact that we're making solid progress is very, very exciting to me. There was a time when I wondered just how we were going to do this, but not now. Now I see my way through.

GOLDMAN: Catlin is head of the Anti-Doping Research Institute in Los Angeles. He says Major League Baseball has donated $500,000 for research on a urine test, but Catlin says he needs several million to pay for high-level chemists who can help finish the job.

Dr. Gary Wadler says a valid pre-reviewed blood test for HGH is close to being ready. Wadler says screening blood is more reliable. But the Baseball Players Union is oppose to blood testing, meaning status quo for the foreseeable future, meaning players will continue to choose the drug of choice whether or not it really works.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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