A - Z of THG

It is believed that British sprinter Dwain Chambers and up to 20 American athletes tested positive for tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). The athletes who tested positive for THG include Olympic champions and world record holders. The International Association of Athletics Federations announced that it will re-test around 400 samples taken during the world athletics championships in Paris in August.

If found guilty of doping, athletes who won medals at the World Championships would have them taken away, and their performances scratched from the record books. The players at the Rugby World Cup were also tested for THG.

THG could not have been taken unintentionally. It was designed to evade existing drug tests. Chances are that many other undetectable designer steroids are in use.

What is THG?
It is a new, specially designed anabolic steroid which has been tweaked by chemists to make it undetectable under normal testing.

The chemical structure of THG is related to two known anabolic steroids: gestrinone (brand names Tridamose, Dimetriose and Nemistran prescribed for the treatment of endometriosis in women because it blocks ovulation) and trenbolone (previously sold as Parabolan and Masterton SA and now only available as a veterinary anabolic steroid).

With the removal of a methyl or hydroxyl group from gestrinone or trenbolone and the addition of extra hydrogen molecules, THG can be created in a laboratory.

THG can be described as a 19-nortestosterone derivate – as is the banned anabolic steroid nandrolone.

Anabolic steroids are usually synthesised from testosterone or testosterone precursors and act like testosterone.

How did the researchers detect THG?
The test for detecting THG was developed by Professor Don Catlin, head of and molecular pharmacologist at the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles. The laboratory provides drug testing and research services to major sport organisations. One of its areas of specialisation is steroids, banned substances proven to enhance performance by increasing muscle strength.

The test is now part of regular doping screening conducted by all accredited laboratories.

Catlin and his team worked for two months to determine the structure of the new unknown substance and then to develop a testing method to detect it. His eight-man team first rinsed the remnants of the mystery substance from the syringe, and then screened the substance by a mass spectrometer to identify chemical compounds. Each substance creates its own "fingerprint" – creating very specific spikes on a graph. The substance from the syringe yielded a pattern of 20 - 25 spikes that fit no pattern seen before. So they tried other tests.

Over weeks, they were able to draw, on paper, the molecular structure of the substance. The structure suggested that the unknown substance was a steroid, not a stimulant. They built the substance, based on the drawings and synthesised the chemical in the laboratory. When they did mass spectrometry on it, it matched the spikes and peaks of the unknown substance 100 percent. The unknown substance was THG, a new anabolic steroid, and experts had no knowledge of its existence prior to this analysis.

As the final challenge, Catlin created a test to detect THG in athletes' urine. According to Catlin, THG is not a "pro-steroid" or "precursor steroid," like many other performance-boosting substances on the market. It is a stand-alone steroid.

 Whoever created it knew enough chemistry to make changes that were so subtle they slipped through the radar, according to Catlin.

What about other undetectable new designer steroids?
Catlin and other scientists are convinced that leading competitors in sports were probably using similar unidentified drugs. Catlin said that he had long believed that designer steroids were being used by athletes but had been unable to prove his suspicions. He said the discovery that athletes were using THG was the first documented evidence that such a designer drug existed.

One of Catlin’s and WADA’s concerns is that chemists create steroids and sell them without conducting tests for safety. It is disconcerting that people out there are creating these new drugs, and athletes are taking them blindly. Athletes are not sure about the effects or side effects, Catlin warned.

Known anabolic streroids
The use of anabolic steroids is, however, not a new phenomenon in the sports world.

They are really not difficult to get hold of. Almost any banned anabolic steroid can be ordered on the Net, along with exact descriptions of the use of these substances and how to inject them.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and the Chief Executive Officer of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Terry Madden, expressed extreme concern about what Madden described as a conspiracy involving chemists, coaches and certain athletes using what they developed to be “undetectable” designer steroids to defraud their fellow competitors and the public who pay to attend sports events.

Here is a list of a few banned anabolic steroids: fluoxymesterone brand name Halotestin; oxandrolone brand name Anavar; methandrostenolone brand name Dianabol; methyltestosterone brand name Metandren Oreton Methyl; nandrolone decnoate brand name Deca-Durabolin; testosterone propionate brand name Testex; testosterone cypionate brand name Depo-Testosterone; stanozolol brand name Winstrol; testolactone brand name Teslac; dromostanolone propionate brand name Drolban; nandrolone phenpropionate brand name Durabolin; testosterone enanthate brand name Delatestryl; ethylestrenol brand name Maxibolin; danazol brand name Danocrine; calusterone brand name Methosarb; testosterone undecanoate; testosterone cyclohexanecarboxylate; dihydrotestosterone, methenolone acetate brand name Primobolan; testosterone-trans-4-n-butylcyclohexyl-carboxylate code name 20Aet-1.

More about nandrolone
Nandrolone is often implicated. This steroid is listed as an “Anabolic androgenic steroid” under “Prohibited Classes of Substances” by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in their Olympic Movement Anti-doping Code (OMAC).

Nandrolone belongs to the same class of banned substances as stanozolol, DHEA, testorone and other anabolic steroids. Nandrolone is also commercially known as Deca-Durabolin.

Like all anabolic steroids, it is a muscle-building chemical. It occurs naturally in the human body, but in minute quantities. It is rather similar in structure to testosterone, the male hormone.

More about Trenbolone
Trenbolone (a 19-nortestosterone derivative very much like Nandrolone) is described by body builders as “Nandrolone on steroids”. For an athlete looking to harden a pre-contest body, trenbolone is one of the best drugs available, according to a website for body builders.

These days, the only way to get trenbolone is to extract it from cattle implants. The trenbolone in implants is an acetate ester meaning its extremely fast acting. The injected esters will quickly release the drug into your body; trenbolone has a quick clearance time from the body as well. Therefore, an athlete needs to inject trenbolone frequently.

Why do sportsmen take THG or any other anabolic steroid?
Anabolic steroids build power and strength. It elevates the natural testosterone levels, a hormone already present in the body. It increases body mass, muscle strength and muscle definition.

Anabolic steroids can improve the body's capacity to train and compete at the highest level. They reduce the fatigue associated with training and the time required to recover after physical exertion. They also promote the development of muscle tissue in the body, with an associated increase in strength and power. This is achieved by stimulating the production of protein in the body.

However, some of the increased muscle bulk may be due to the laying down of water and minerals, so the increase in strength may not be as pronounced as expected.

Nandrolone has many of the same effects as testosterone – muscle building – without some of the unwanted side effects such as increased body hair and aggressive behaviour.

It is being examined in clinical trials as a possible treatment for wasting disease and to increase body tissue in HIV infected men.

Athletes who need spurts of power for short, but intense contests; runners; swimmers; rowers; male gymnasts and weight and power lifters will be tempted to use or are using anabolic steroids.

However, the use of steroids is not limited to Olympic sports requiring bursts of speed or strength. Olympic sports such as track and field and weightlifting, as well as cycling, have generated the bulk of bad publicity regarding performance-enhancing drug use because those sports' organisations have been pursuing violators most successfully and for longest time. Rugby players have been using it and American baseball has shied away from stricter testing and sanctions.

What are the risks associated with anabolic steroids?
Anabolic steroids promote the growth of many tissues in the body by stimulating the release of the hormone testosterone.

By disturbing the body's equilibrium, anabolic steroids can potentially cause damage to many of the body's major organs, particularly the liver, which has to deal with breaking down the compound.

There is also a significant risk of damage to the heart, which is made of muscle tissue. Anabolic steroids can lead to an expansion of the cardiac muscle, which can cause heart attacks. The drugs also promote the growth of bones, particularly facial bones such as the jaw and the teeth. There is also an increased risk of cancer.

Other side effects include:

  • the development of inappropriate sexual characteristics such as breasts in men, and facial hair in women
  • a deepening of the voice
  • baldness
  • male impotence

If used by women, it can lead to the development of male characteristics, like the growth of facial hair to say the least. Pregnant women or those trying to become pregnant should not take this drug because it may cause birth defects.

How can nandrolone and other steroids be detected?
Short-acting, water-soluble steroids are now available. These can be absorbed by and eliminated from the body within a matter of hours. The most popular type is a synthetic derivative of testosterone.

It is detected in drug tests by the presence of its metabolite in the urine. A limit of two nanograms per millilitre of urine is the maximum concentration allowed in the human body. Some samples of athletes have shown levels up to 100 times above the “natural” levels.

In Sydney, during the Olympics, the ratio between testosterone and epitestosterone in urine was tested. The ratio should be 1:1 and, and in exceptional cases can occur naturally at the ratio of 4 or 5:1.

The cut-off point in Sydney was 6:1. By setting the cut-off point at such a high level, sports scientists are of the opinion that the IOC in actual fact tacitly consents to the use of anabolic steroids.

Interesting facts about Balco
Balco (Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative) is a company in San Francisco which produces nutritional supplements. It has been identified by the USADA as the source of THG.

Balco analyses blood and urine from athletes and then prescribes a series of supplements to compensate for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Among its clients are top athletics stars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, as well as baseball star Barry Bonds and the football league player Bill Romanowski.

The discovery of THG led to a raid of Balco in early September. Vials and containers were found with labels indicating they contained steroids, human growth hormone and testosterone.

Balco’s nutrition guru Victor Conte has links with Marion Jones and Kelli White. Conte took the blame when Jones' former husband, shot put champion CJ Hunter, was found to have 1 000 times the allowable amount of the steroid nandrolone in his system. Hunter was banned by the IAAF prior to the last Olympics. According to Conte the positive test was the result of contaminated iron supplements he had supplied to Hunter.

In yet another doping scandal Kelli White, the world 100m and 200m champion, tested positive for banned stimulant modafinil at the World Championships in Paris in August. According to White she took modafinil to combat the sleep disorder narcolepsy. Modafinil was prescribed to her by Dr Brian Goldman, a psychiatrist who has worked with Balco president Conte for almost 20 years. 

(Mari Hudson, Health24, October 2003)

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