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Controversy Grows Over Designer Steroid
Feds ban THG; grand jury subpoenas top athletes

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Oct. 30 (HealthDayNews) -- The scandal over a new, previously undetectable and apparently widely used steroid has climaxed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's decision to ban the use and sale of tetrahydrogestrinone (THG).

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) says that as many as half a dozen athletes in track and field have already tested positive for THG, which is designed to boost muscle mass and strength.

Use of the chemical, which can't be detected by routine urine tests, has prompted a federal grand jury in San Francisco to subpoena dozens of world-class athletes, including track star Marion Jones and baseball's Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. British sprinter Dwain Chambers has admitted taking the drug, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

THG had been billed as a nutritional supplement. But according to an FDA statement released Tuesday, it "does not meet the dietary supplement definition" but is a "purely synthetic 'designer' steroid derived by simple chemical modification from another anabolic steroid that is explicitly banned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency."

According to the FDA, the drug is closely related to two other synthetic anabolic steroids, gestrinone and trenbolone.

"Anabolic steroids are designed to increase muscle mass and strength," explains Dr. Theodore Bania, director of toxicology at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City.

However, there is a dangerous trade-off.

"The most common side effects are benign and malignant tumors of the liver and toxic hepatitis," says Dr. Todd Schlifstein, a clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. Users can also suffer aggressive mood swings, decreased fertility, acne and even heart attacks.

Schlifstein says steroids have been illegal in the United States without a prescription since 1990. Nevertheless, he adds, they are "widely used."

The National Football League, along with the governing bodies for various other sports including track and field, swimming and rugby, have announced they will now start testing for THG. The International Olympic Committee has announced it will test for THG at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. And the committee is investigating whether to do retroactive testing on stored urine samples from the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, the federal grand jury in San Francisco is set to begin investigating the activities of BALCO (Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative) Laboratory in Burlingame, Calif., the alleged source of the substance.

The USADA was apparently tipped off at the beginning of the summer by a "high-profile track and field coach" who supplied the names of athletes using the steroid and, later, a used syringe containing a sample. The International Olympic Committee tested the sample for steroids but came up negative.

However, a new test developed at the University of California, Los Angeles, produced positive results. In addition, several positive tests have come back from the 2003 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships and from some out-of-competition samples collected by the USADA.

According to a statement issued by the agency, the "high-profile" coach identified the source of the steroid as Victor Conte of BALCO Laboratory.

To some, the chain of events was highly orchestrated.

"My gut instinct says that it wasn't an accident," Schlifstein says. "This was obviously designed with the intent for people to use and not get picked up. It's such a blatant violation."

It's a sentiment that USADA chief executive officer Terry Madden seems to share.

"This is a far cry from athletes accidentally testing positive as a result of taking contaminated nutritional supplements," he says in a prepared statement. "Rather, this is a conspiracy involving chemists, coaches and certain athletes using what they developed to be "undetectable" designer steroids to defraud their fellow competitors and the American and world public who pay to attend sports events."

More information

For more on official sports' response to THG, visit the International Olympic Committee. For more on illegal drugs in sports, visit the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Copyright © 2002 ScoutNews, LLC. All rights reserved.

SOURCES: Theodore Bania, M.D., director, toxicology, St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York City; Todd Schlifstein, M.D., clinical assistant professor, New York University School of Medicine, New York City

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