Athletes only too happy to be 'lab rats'
Seeking an edge, some bodybuilders and cyclists buy failed experimental drugs
April 21, 2013|By Julie Deardorff, Chicago Tribune reporter
After discovering that a promising new drug caused multiple types of cancer in lab animals, the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline stopped developing the compound. But the failed experimental drug, called GW501516, is making a comeback in another arena. Though it's not approved for human use and likely never will be it's among dozens of unregulated research chemicals being used by competitive bodybuilders, cyclists and other elite athletes seeking an edge.
These unapproved chemical compounds are sold by companies that purport to offer the substances for use in scientific experiments, which is legal. The buyer must agree the drugs will be given only to laboratory animals or used for in vitro research and will never be ingested by humans.
Yet so many athletes are trying GW501516 that the World Anti-Doping Agency, an independent international body, last month took the rare step of warning "cheats" about side effects, citing "serious toxicities." In the last two weeks alone, five cyclists four from Costa Rica and one from Russia were provisionally suspended when tests revealed they had the drug in their systems.
On bodybuilding websites, it's easy to find joking, thinly veiled comments referring to users as "lab rats."
Some distributors of research chemicals openly advertise their products on bodybuilding sites and even sponsor chat boards and competitions.
"The 'research only' references are a 'wink-wink' kind of thing," said Lawrence Payne of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "We've seen about 200 new drugs flood the market over the last five years; most are unregulated, coming out of labs from China. It's the new frontier of drug enforcement."
And though the problem has been detected first among hard-core athletes, some experts say whatever top competitors do to get ahead inevitably is copied by others, including youngsters and recreational athletes, as well as people looking to improve their physique.
"As a research scientist, you feel both shock and anger when you're developing a medicine to help someone live longer or walk down the street without pain, and you find out people are abusing it and using it to cheat in sport," said Mark Luttmann, of GlaxoSmithKline, who works with the anti-doping agency to share confidential information on emerging compounds. "That's what really gets to you."
Luttmann said he is particularly concerned about young athletes emulating those who take illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
"Elite athletes know what they are doing is wrong," he said. "What we need to do is reach the kids. That's a huge role we play."