Last year, Don H. Catlin and his team of scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles solved a huge chemical mystery. Working with a tiny bit of residue from a spent syringe, they identified an anabolic steroid that couldn't be detected in the urine tests that are regularly given to athletes.
The "designer steroid," called tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), is similar in structure to two common steroids, but its molecular makeup had been tweaked slightly to avoid detection. THG is now on the list of banned performance-enhancing drugs, and the THG test that Catlin developed will be added to the arsenal of tests given to athletes at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. BusinessWeek Los Angeles Correspondent Arlene Weintraub met Catlin at his lab in Los Angeles. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation.
Q: Why couldn't standard steroid tests detect THG?
A:THG is close in function to known steroids, but it's just a little different. All drug-testing labs test urine the same way, using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. But these tests wouldn't see THG because the molecule becomes unstable under the testing conditions normally used. We were blind to it. We missed it, maybe for years.
Q: Once you figured out that THG was a steroid, how did you develop a test to detect it?
A:We use liquid chromatography instead of gas. The liquid makes the testing instruments better able to work with molecules that are fragile, like THG is.
Q: You also discovered that some athletes were using a steroid called norbolethone. What's the story behind this drug?
A:Wyeth (WYE ) was developing it for therapeutic purposes some 30 years ago. They took it out of production because it was too toxic. It caused a lot of bleeding disorders and too many androgenizing effects. Thirty years ago! Yet someone is selling it now to athletes who are using it today.
Q: Does the technology exist to develop tests that would identify designer steroids even before anyone knows the drugs are out there?
A:Yes. We think it's possible to really be just days behind the people who are making clandestine drugs. You can think of them as cars in a parking lot. If there are 50 cars that all have names, and one without a name, at least you know it's a car.
Steroids act as a family. It should be possible to develop methods of identifying whole families of steroids, so even if something is an unrecognizable designer steroid, we may see it in assays for steroids we already know.
Q: Why don't these tests exist today?
A:It's a matter of resources. We have to design programs that tell the mass spectrometers what to do. We ought to be making steroids here every day so we can put all the possible coordinates in the computer. But we're funded by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Their grants are little -- $100,000 typically -- and they run for just one or two years. We need a program that's funded in perpetuity.
We can't hire a senior researcher to work for two years. Scientists don't work that way. We need at least five years to get somewhere. Plus, it costs a quarter of a million dollars a year to support a senior scientist.
Q: Is the dream of stopping clandestine scientists in their tracks a hopeless quest?
A:We know the basic principles. We think we're as good as the bad guys. But if we really want to solve this problem, we're going to need a lot more money. Doping is the most serious problem facing sports today. Now people understand what a designer steroid is. They're asking the right questions. Hopefully they'll do what it takes to avoid this in the future.
Edited by Patricia O'Connell