This is a guest article by Gabriel Montoya. You can follow him on Twitter at @Gabriel_Montoya.
MMA fighter Cung Le was suspended for one year by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) last week for elevated Human Growth Hormone (HGH) levels found in a blood sample collected immediately following his August 23 TKO loss to Michael Bisping. Le's suspension was initially for nine months but the UFC revised their suspension and extended it to a year, citing an error on their part. That suspension appears to be one in a series of errors made by the UFC regarding Le and his test results. Mounting scientific evidence suggests a myriad of mistakes made by the lab as well as the UFC. The Hong Kong lab used to conduct the hGH test, the sample collection procedure and the actual test results used to determine the "elevated levels of hGH" have some of the top anti-doping experts puzzled.
One of the world’s most renowned sports doping scientists and the former chairman of the Australian Sports AntiDoping Authority, both responded to the test results with outright skepticism. One of them even flat out said he'd ignore the test results.
There are currently two different tests being used by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) to detect hGH use. The hGH "Isoform Differential Immunoassays" test is used to determine the presence of exogenous (meaning from an outside source) hGH in the system. That test is used in conjunction with a test for serum IGF1 levels.
The other hGH test is known as the Biomarker test. According to the Hong Kong lab report reviewed by this reporter, none of these sports doping hGH tests were conducted on Cung Le's blood sample.
Instead, the Hong Kong lab took a reading of Le's total hGH concentration, which by itself cannot determine if the subject has used exogenous hGH or not.
For a male who has fasted and rested for 12 hours prior to giving a blood sample to be tested, [proper protocol], the normal range is 05 ng/mL. For an athlete giving a sample after strenuous activity such as a fight, the expected range is 20-30 ng/mL. Le's reading was a bit below 20 ng/mL, which is actually lower than the expected post-exercise reference range.
Dr. Don Catlin is considered to be one of the foremost experts on performance enhancing drug testing in sports. He oversaw the opening and operation of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Testing Lab for over 20 years. For the past several years, Dr. Catlin has been developing a new hGH test with his own research team.
"If it was not the isoform test I would ignore [Cung Le's test] results," Dr. Catlin told this reporter.
As it turns out, the fact that Le's sample were not tested using the Isoform, IGF1 or Biomarker tests is just one in a series of testing gaffes.
On the night of August 23, 2014, Cung le and Michael Bisping fought on a card "self-regulated" and promoted by the UFC in Macau, China. Le, 42, suffered severe injuries in his TKO loss to Bisping. Cut over the eyes, Le told this reporter late Sunday night that he also suffered a broken bone inside his eye socket.
According to a statement released Monday to MMAJunkie.com by UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner "a phlebotomist hired from the Mayo Clinic collected blood samples from both fighters. The blood samples were shipped to the Hong Kong Functional Medicine Testing Center for analysis." According to Le, the sample collector took two vials of blood from him after a couple unsuccessful tries and then shipped it off to the lab in Hong Kong which is not WADA accredited. What does that mean? It means that the Hong Kong lab would not be able to perform the Isoform or Biomarker hGH tests which WADA considers to be essential to determining a positive hGH test.
"At this time hGH testing can only be reliably tested in a WADA lab with the appropriate reagents [meaning: chemicals]," said Dr. Catlin.
Richard Ings, the Chairman of the Australian Sports AntiDoping Authority from 2005 to 2010, weighed in. "Only WADA accredited labs are authorized to perform anti-doping analysis to WADA standards," he said. "There are 34 to choose from at last count, I believe."
Why the UFC decided to use a non-WADA lab in Hong Kong when a WADA lab was available three hours away in Beijing, China remains a mystery. It is also unknown whether the "phlebotomist" hired by the UFC is a member of a WADA approved doping control entity.
To compound matters, Le was given his results by the UFC after they received them from the Hong Kong lab. However, neither the lab or the UFC bothered to translate them from Chinese into English. Mr. Le is Vietnamese.
"We had to use 'Google translate' in order to read the results," said Gary Ibarra, Le's manager.
Once Le and Ibarra were informed of the lab’s findings, they asked that the B sample be tested. It is standard sports drug testing procedure for samples collected to be divided into an "A Sample" and a "B sample." The UFC informed Le that the B sample had been thrown out by the lab, destroying any chance of a science-based appeal.
"Every sample requires an A and a B analysis," said Ings. "The B sample is the confirmation test of the A sample analysis. No B sample means no ADRV (Anti-Doping Rules Violation) is possible."
As for the "elevated hGH levels" finding of the Hong Kong lab, Ings said "[This case] would never stand up at appeal at CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport)." CAS, which is considered the supreme court of sport’s doping, is the third party venue used when an athlete wishes to challenge a positive test result.
Unfortunately for Le, CAS is not an option in this case. The UFC, when holding events outside the United States, is a self-regulated organization. They determine how and when to test as well as what the punishment will be.
On Monday, the UFC, via Ratner's statement, stood by their decision to suspend Le. At press time, the UFC did not answer questions posed by this reporter. Rather, they passed them along "for review should we be interested in participating in your story."
"The UFC is the judge, jury and executioner," said Le, who rightfully feels he is entitled to due process.