Scientist: THG discovery a huge breakthrough in fight against doping
Posted: Thursday October 30, 2003 7:03PM; Updated: Thursday October 30, 2003 7:08PM
For Don Catlin and his team of eight scientists, successfully identifying tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), a previously undetected steroid, meant the job was only half-complete. The drug sleuths immediately turned their attention to compiling enough information on THG to fend off a bevy of anticipated legal challenges by athletes, trainers and those who manufacture and supply the substance.
Catlin's discovery of the designer steroid, which had heretofore escaped detection by standard screening tests, is at the center of perhaps the biggest doping scandal ever in sports. At least four track and field athletes reportedly have tested positive for THG, and officials suspect that dozens of others from an assortment of sports may also have used the drug. Already, a grand jury in San Francisco is reported to have subpoenaed upwards of 40 athletes as part of a tax investigation into the Bay Area laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), a sports nutrition company accused of manufacturing the drug.
BALCO's Victor Conte denies that THG is even a steroid. Catlin says there is no question about it -- THG is a steroid.
Asked what defense he expects to hear from those who test positive for THG, Catlin tells SI.com: "I don't think there is a serious defense. Oh, I'm sure it is going to be said that it is a supplement or whatever, but this is a designer steroid. It is there. We proved it. And it came from somewhere. It is not endogenous. And it is not in your milk. And so, please, explain where it came from."
In mid-June, a syringe arrived in a Fed Ex package at the Colorado Springs headquarters of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Shipped by a disgruntled track coach, the syringe was taken to the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory in Los Angeles, where Catlin, a molecular pharmacologist, has been the director for 21 years. There was barely anything left in the syringe, but scientists at the lab were able to establish the molecular fingerprint of the substance it had contained, and were then able to replicate it.
Catlin says the USADA, as a precaution against future litigation, also arranged for an independent lab in Australia to synthesize THG. The Australian product proved a perfect match to what the UCLA lab had produced.
"After we knew the molecule, we knew that there was going to be intense litigation over it," Catlin explains. "So USADA started by commissioning a synthesis in another lab in another part of the world, saying: 'Yes, here is confirmation.' So that was a key piece.
"And our work has also been reviewed by some very sophisticated outside chemists who have agreed with us. We have dotted all the i's. And there is an interesting transition going on, because as of Jan. 1, 2004, WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] becomes completely in charge. And they have a code that prescribes a number of things the laboratories need to do that we don't need to do now. Well, we decided early on in this that we would perform the analysis according to the 2004 code, so that nobody could criticize us and say that we weren't up to code, because we don't know when all these things are going to play out."
The syringe that was shipped to USADA headquarters didn't even have a needle attached to it. What the syringe contained was barely measurable, and Catlin's scientists relied on a methanol solvent to pull up what would ultimately be a tablespoon of the substance.
Catlin has spent his career breaking down steroids. But this one was odd, unlike anything he'd ever seen. Within a couple of weeks the UCLA team was able to elicit its chemical structure.
"We were pretty sure of its structure, but it wasn't a molecule that had ever been described before," Catlin says. "We went into the chemistry databases and there was nothing there. It was blank. It was a brand new compound. So in order to prove what we had, we synthesized it, we made it ourselves.
"We could then compare what we made with what we found in the syringe. And it was a perfect match, all the way around."
The lab, which did drug testing for the Los Angeles, Atlanta and Salt Lake City Olympics, then developed a test for the steroid and by late summer began receiving urine samples from track and field athletes. According to Catlin, USA Track and Field, the sport's domestic governing body, shipped 350 samples that had been collected at its national championships. Another couple hundred were shipped from out-of-competition tests performed by USADA, and the IAAF, track's global governing body, also forwarded samples.
Catlin refuses to speculate on how many positive tests he anticipates, but he asserts that his THG discovery is a huge breakthrough in the fight against doping.
"It has raised a big flag in sports from what I see of the coverage," he says. "The question is, is this just another episode or is it something that is going to lead to changes, so that in five years we don't have another one? Fifteen years ago we had Ben Johnson and that was a big shock, and that really started things going. And 15 years later we have an episode that really nobody knows quite how broad and deep it is. If you look at some of the names that are in the papers [for reported positive tests], they're not walk-ons."
While the syringe sent to the USADA would indicate the drug is injected by athletes, Catlin believes it might also be ingested by simply placing a few drops under the tongue.
The real mystery is how THG managed to remain undetected by the standard drug tests. Was it sheer luck or had the chemists designed a Stealth bomber-like substance able to fly under the radar? And how long has this performance-enhancing drug been floating around the sports world?
"When we do the regular tests on a sample that contains THG we don't see it," explains Catlin. "It disintegrates. It is not stable under the [hot] temperatures. You don't see anything."
Catlin says that explaining this to his clients (including the United States Olympic Committee, NFL, NCAA and Department of Defense), the USADA, WADA and the International Olympic Committee, has not been easy.
"Part of our issue is to describe to our clients what is really going on," he says. "And it is not so simple. As sophisticated as they are, some of them don't necessarily understand what a designer drug is. What THG is doing is compelling everybody to sit up and take notice. And they are having trouble: 'What do you mean it is not detectable?'
"So it is a learning experience. And although it comes as no learning experience to me, it is going to have an important effect on sport, because they get the message. The way to deal with that message is to put more resources into the testing. That is something I bellyache about all the time. Now I don't have to say a thing. It is pretty obvious."
Conte, whose lab is at the center of the investigation, is someone Catlin has been aware of for years. His company has been a source of nutritional supplements for numerous athletes, including San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds and Oakland Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski.
Catlin was especially intrigued when Conte came to the defense of shot putter C.J. Hunter, who flunked a drug test before the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
"I track anybody who pops up on a radar screen as being involved with anything, but I had no hard data," Catlins recalls. "It is rare you get any hard proof. When, if ever before, has a coach made a syringe available? Never. And that is a very new, different concept."
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.