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Breaking the Code

A doctor and his team at UCLA were put to the test to identify a designer steroid used by athletes. Officials say they must get as creative as the cheaters.

November 06, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

A few drops of liquid from the inside of a used syringe. That was all Dr. Don Catlin had to work with.

Authorities feared that those few drops were the residue of a new drug -- an illegal drug -- that athletes were taking to make themselves stronger and faster.

When the sample arrived at his laboratory near UCLA, delivered by overnight courier, Catlin set about testing the theory. He started from scratch.

"It's sort of like the 20 Questions game," he said. "Is it animal, vegetable or mineral? But in our case, the question is: Stimulant, diuretic or anabolic steroid?"

The next three months played out like a spy novel, albeit one written by a molecular pharmacologist. Through painstaking science, and a little guesswork, Catlin and his team of chemists at UCLA's Olympic-accredited laboratory determined the substance to be a new chemical entity, the steroid now called tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG.

Catlin had solved an intricate riddle, a feat that earned him worldwide praise. But the accomplishment has left him with mixed emotions.

The discovery appears to confirm a worst-case scenario in sporting circles: That rogue chemists are making designer steroids for the sole purpose of helping athletes cheat and avoid detection.

"This is the first living proof," Catlin said. "Now we have to face the reality."

The THG case has triggered a chain reaction.

Using a test created by the UCLA lab, international sports organizations are re-examining hundreds of urine samples kept in storage from recent competitions. So far, four U.S. athletes and a British sprinter have tested positive for THG.

Meanwhile, authorities are focusing on a small company called Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, known as BALCO, in Burlingame, Calif.

An anti-doping agency has accused BALCO of being the source of THG. Federal investigators have launched a separate probe reportedly focused on distribution of the steroid and possible violation of tax laws.

Victor Conte, the company's owner, has denied wrongdoing.

BALCO was previously known for making nutritional supplements favored by an all-star client list. Now dozens of athletes ranging from San Francisco Giant slugger Barry Bonds to boxer Shane Mosley have been subpoenaed to testify before a San Francisco grand jury early next month.

"That's not good for the sports world," said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "The concern is that people start to feel like there are no athletes out there doing extraordinary things without performance-enhancing drugs. It taints the accomplishments of a lot" of athletes.

Such is the scandal that came to light in Catlin's lab. Established in 1982, it tests samples for the NFL, college sports and an alphabet soup's worth of organizations that govern amateur athletics. As the only Olympic- accredited facility in the nation, it was the first place American sports authorities turned when trouble arose.

Last summer, a man who identified himself as a "high-profile track and field coach" called the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency -- an independent organization that polices amateur sports -- and claimed athletes were using a new kind of steroid. The tipster sent the used syringe to the anti-doping agency's offices in Colorado Springs.

Because the syringe contained only residue, an agency staff member filled it with methanol, then emptied this mixture into a vial for shipping. As soon as Catlin received the sample, he gathered eight members of his staff for what would be a long, difficult process.

As part of standard procedure, the sample was placed in a gas chromatograph, a computerized oven that heats to more than 300 degrees in 25 minutes. Eventually, the liquid vaporized.

This vapor was swept into a mass spectrometer, where its particles were subjected to an electron beam that produced a "fingerprint" of the molecule.

The chemists soon confirmed they were dealing with a steroid. Precisely what kind? That was more difficult to say.

Any substance, when passed through a mass spectrometer, produces an identifiable peak on a readout. In this case, the sample splintered and appeared as multiple peaks. "We had to sort all that out," Catlin said.

Over the next few weeks, he accumulated bits of information, glimpses of the mystery steroid.

"You try to piece those together and say, 'What would the entire molecule look like?' " Catlin said. "It's as if you had a puzzle from a box. You try to put it together so it makes sense."

Using pencil and paper, Catlin and his crew sketched variations on the basic shape of a steroid -- three six-carbon rings and one five-carbon ring -- trying one alternative after another. They eventually settled on something that looked right, something that made sense.

They synthesized their theoretical drug, in effect mimicking the chemist who created THG. The concoction was put through the gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer, subjected to the same test as the original sample.

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