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Doping evidence doesn't add up

A fictional steroid proves fatal for a ballplayer on 'Numb3rs.'

April 23, 2007|Marc Siegel | Special to The Times

"Numb3rs," CBS, April 13, 10 p.m.

The premise: Vick Johnson, a baseball star coming off two injury-ridden seasons, is trying to make a comeback. But, stretching a double into a triple, he dies sliding into third base. An autopsy determines that he died of a massive brain hemorrhage and that his blood contains an artificial, difficult-to-trace anabolic-androgenic steroid called thorocycline. Bound by FDA regulations, the chemical is supposed to be prescribed only for adolescent males with pituitary malfunction and growth disorders.

According to the FBI team, long-term side effects of this drug include balding, premature closure of the growth plate (the area of developing cartilage at the end of long bones), gynecomastia (breast-like growth in men), erectile dysfunction and increased production of testosterone, which kills brain cells. A boy genius, Oswald Kittner, points out that players who are "juicing" with thorocycline and drugs like it are more likely to be injured.

The medical questions: What are anabolic-androgenic steroids? Can they cause a brain hemorrhage? Are they only available by prescription for pituitary abnormalities? Are the long-term side effects of such drugs accurately described in the show?

The reality: Thorocycline is a fictional steroid, an unrealistic hybrid of an artificial growth hormone, a nutritional supplement and an anabolic-androgenic steroid. In real life, anabolic-androgenic steroids are manufactured substances similar to male sex hormones. Anabolic refers to muscle-building properties, and androgenic refers to male sexual characteristics.

Though it is possible for an overdose of steroids to cause a stroke, a hemorrhage would be far less likely than a blood clot.

"Numb3rs" also blurs the distinction between steroids and the growth hormones that are approved by the FDA for particular uses such as pituitary deficiency. According to Dr. Gary I. Wadler, a national expert who testified during Congress' recent investigation into Major League Baseball's steroid abuses that "an adolescent with a pituitary insufficiency leading to stunted growth and problems with sexual development would be treated with human growth hormone and possibly testosterone."

As the show correctly points out, common side effects of steroid abuse are stunted growth in adolescents, gynecomastia, baldness and erectile dysfunction. Other alarming side effects can include shrinking of the testicles, infertility and an increased risk of prostate cancer. Although excessive use of anabolic-androgenic steroids probably can increase the user's likelihood of getting a sports injury, Wadler says, this observation has yet to be proved.


Dr. Marc Siegel is an internist and an associate professor of medicine at New York University's School of Medicine. He is also the author of "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear." In the Unreal World, he explains the medical facts behind the media fiction. He can be reached at

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