Burden of proof on THG with U.S. officials

Steroids: Lack of scientific affirmation of the drug's modus operandi could pose a major problem for those building a case against it.

Drugs

April 14, 2004|By Elliott Almond and Mark Emmons | Elliott Almond and Mark Emmons,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN JOSE, Calif. - From the moment a steroid scandal linked to BALCO Laboratories broke last fall, pulling in high-profile names that included that of Barry Bonds, sports officials have made their position clear:

The previously undetectable substance, THG, is an anabolic steroid that promotes muscle growth and enhances athletic performance. Case closed.

In a legal sense, however, the issue might not be that simple. This question is going to be central, not only to the Olympic sports cases before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency this week, but perhaps also to the public perception of Bonds: What exactly is THG?

What has been forcefully described as a performance-enhancing drug by Olympics officials now is being questioned because of a lack of scientific proof.

Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor and an authority on steroids, said the federal law requires that the government show that a substance creates muscle growth - and that could make the THG portion of the BALCO case problematic for prosecutors.

"Do I think it's probably an anabolic steroid?" Yesalis said. "Sure. But you also have to prove that fact. You have to show that it's a performance-enhancer or that it's a danger. None of that has been done."

That means even if Bonds is shown to have taken THG, or tetrahydrogestrinone, it could prove to have little impact on the case, other than casting him in a negative light as he chases Hank Aaron's career home run record.

Judging from an affidavit unsealed when the government indicted four San Francisco area men on charges of conspiring to distribute illegal drugs to elite athletes, prosecutors might not bother with THG because of the weak federal statute.

The affidavit also listed illegal drugs that included testosterone, human growth hormone and EPO, a powerful blood-boosting agent, among the evidence in the case.

Congress is considering legislation to toughen the steroids laws, which would make THG and steroid precursors such as androstenedione - the drug Mark McGwire used during his home-run-record season in 1998 - covered by the Controlled Substances Act.

The Food and Drug Administration has declared THG an unapproved drug, but an FDA spokesperson said the agency has not done any analysis to corroborate the work of Dr. Don Catlin, head of the UCLA drug-testing laboratory. Catlin identified the drug last summer as an anabolic steroid.

Catlin, though, balked when questioned about the anabolic properties, according to two sources familiar with his grand jury testimony in the BALCO case.

"Even Dr. Catlin said he wasn't sure if he could categorize THG as an anabolic steroid," Bonds' attorney, Michael Rains, said recently. "If the eminent doctor can't tell, how are they going to indict a ballplayer?"

None of this has stopped most of the sporting world - with the notable exception of major league baseball - from coming down hard on THG users. It underscores how the international drug-testing code is stricter than federal law in defining anabolic steroids.

The World Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees Olympic sports testing, has no requirement to prove that a substance is muscle-building. Also, the WADA specifically bans gestrinone, the drug closely related in molecular structure to THG. Gestrinone is not listed in the federal guidelines.

That is why Olympic athletes who have tested positive for THG, such as Oakland runner Regina Jacobs, will have a difficult time salvaging their eligibility. Athletes who test positive for THG face two-year bans.

Hammer thrower Melissa Price's will be the first case heard by an appeal panel connected to the USADA. The case of hammer thrower John McEwen, who also tested positive for modafinil, is scheduled to follow.

Even some of those trying to remove performance-enhancing substances from sport have expressed concern about how little is known about THG.

"If lawyers are questioning the science, they are doing all the right things," said Allen Murray, president of a California biotech firm that is working to develop a test for EPO.

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