By Antoine du Rocher
NEW YORK, 8 AUGUST 2008 As
the Beijing Olympic Games take center stage today, some may wonder if the
steroid aphorism, "one good drug can hide another," will continue to prove
true. Still others believe that despite the Olympic committee's valiant
efforts to protect the spirit of the 2008 Games, the dark side is au
rendez-vous and "the committee hasn't got a chance."
These and other reflections are the domain of a young
American research chemist, Jason S. Thomas, whose person and manner convey
little of the rarefied world of steroid research and cancer drugs.
Tall, muscular, a bit pale with dark hair and eyes in
the genre of the Canadian actor Keanu Reeves, Mr. Thomas is, in some ways,
indistinguishable from any number of bouncers-in-black at hip clubs in
downtown New York - until, that is, he begins to speak. Within seconds of
his handshake, the ear is required to adjust to an articulate baritone
from the American South, one that rivals that of the colorful Democratic
political strategist and author, David "Mudcat" Saunders. Once engaged,
however, the affable and cosmopolitan southerner is especially voluble
when he talks about steroid research and its implications in medicine,
sports and human evolution - as well as his other passion, bodybuilding.
Currently on sabbatical, the 30-year-old research
scientist agreed to share with Culturekiosque his observations and
insights into the little-understood and taboo world of steroid design.
Culturekiosque: Where do you come
from in America?
Jason Thomas: I was born in
Virginia...in a small town in a very rural part of southwest Virginia. The
closest known town would be Roanoke, Virginia.
CK: What triggered your interest in
science? Were your parents scientists?
JT: No, my mom taught at a private
school. My father sold insurance. I went to a private school for high
school and then the University of Virginia for college. I was pre-medicine
and completed a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry with a specialization in
Biochemistry; and that's what triggered my interest in science. When I
graduated I had to decide on either medicine or graduate school in
chemistry. I couldn't decide at first, so I taught high school chemistry
for two years. Later, I chose chemistry and came to New York for graduate
school. I am in a Ph.D. program in synthetic organic chemistry at City
University of New York.
CK: Were you interested in sports
during your studies?
JT: Sports are extremely important in
the South. We have a lot of space for sports and you are an outcast in the
South if you don't play sports. My father played college football and was
headed for the NFL pro draft before he dropped out due to injury and the
desire to start a family. Hell, in the South, everybody's father was a
star football, baseball or basketball player in high school or college.
When fathers introduce their sons, they often preface it with a current
sports achievement. I did a lot of sports in high school and college. The
University of Virginia is a big ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) school.
So, you are talking about athletes from all over the country. I played
soccer and football with the guys, but I was not a competitive athlete on
any of the college teams.
CK: What made you choose chemistry
rather than medicine?
JT: In medicine you learn a lot about
how the body works, but I wanted to look deeper...to know what went on
below the surface. Chemistry is the most basic of the biological sciences.
I wanted an explanation on the deepest level. In nutrition for example, I
can explain a body organ, but I can also explain and analyze the reactions
taking place within that organ. Chemistry takes me down to a more base
level for explanations.
CK: How did you arrive at your
specialization in biochemistry?
JT: There are seven sub-branches of
pure chemistry. Biochemistry is a separate entity in itself, and to
explain biochemistry thoroughly you need the pure chemistry background. To
understand anything biological you have to understand the chemistry first.
That is why I chose pure chemistry first rather than biochemistry. Within
that, I do organic chemistry. And the reason for that is that I have
always been interested in drug research. Had I chosen medicine, I would
have been an anesthesiologist. I love how drugs interact with body
systems. I want to know how to make the drugs, which is why I do synthetic
organic chemistry. Designing drugs is one of the most useful aspects of
chemistry. It's easy to say that a drug needs to be made for a specific
condition or pathology, but somebody actually has to make it. I like the
hands-on aspect of drug design and thus switched from their applications
in medicine to actually making the medical drugs. I wanted to answer my
own questions, but I also wanted to make a contribution. So, for now, I
work on synthesizing compounds with anti-tumor activity with the hope that
it will someday become a cancer drug.
CK: Did sports have an impact on your
JT: Well, I lifted ever since I got
out of high school. The more you lift the more you learn about supplements
and drugs. I soon realized that I could understand this stuff because this
was my field. It was motivating. The more I learn the more I can apply to
lifting - which I love. So, it's not just the cancer drugs I work on, but
I also enjoy looking at what's out there in other areas such as sports
supplements and nutrition. Whenever I read about a new supplement in a
professional journal or magazine, I have to know how and whether it works.
Chemistry allows me to know this. I like to be a know-it-all.
CK: And what constitutes your work in
synthetic organic chemistry?
JT: Usually organic chemistry is
geared toward medical research. So, I am in the lab with the reactions
trying to make actual compounds for medical drugs. In the organic
chemistry departments at The City University of New York, a lot of the
projects are geared toward medical drugs for HIV, cancer, etc.
CK: How does one get from synthetic
organic chemistry to steroids?
JT: I have always been interested in
steroids because I have actually done bodybuilding contests. I was natural
because I never wanted to take steroids. Most of all, because they are
illegal unless prescribed by a doctor and that's so expensive.
CK: When did you compete?
JT: I competed at the age of 22 and
23 in 2000 and 2001.
CK: Were you completely natural? Did
you ever use steroids while training or for your contest preparation?
JT: No, I was completely natural.
Initially, I got interested in the nutrition of lifting because I wanted
to figure out a natural way to keep up with the steroid users. Then it
started to fascinate me because I would see these guys that I worked out
with. I knew them when they were not using steroids, and then I would see
them when they did. It was amazing the transformations steroids made. I
thought to myself, "I do chemistry. Why don't I look at this deeply?" When
you can change the human body that much, I think it's fascinating. And
that's how I got into studying steroids. With my Ph.D. program, it worked
nicely because along with a doctoral dissertation, I had to pick another
thesis topic, develop it, present it to my colleagues, but never actually
pursue it. With all the news about THG [Tetrahydrogestrinone] and the
BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative] scandal, I thought it would be a
hot topic and interesting for everyone if I presented the topic of
steroids. With the exception of Ouabain, which is a non-anabolic steroid
heart medicine, nobody at our university is working on steroids.
CK: There seem to be many definitions
of the word steroid. How would you best define a steroid?
JT: Unfortunately, when the public
says or reads "steroid" in the media, everybody thinks "anabolic
steroids". But a true definition for chemists or physicians is the 4-ring
carbon chain which has the basic resemblance to cholestorol.
CK: So, in fact, the most suitable
definition would be any of several fat soluble organic compounds having as
a basis 17 carbon atoms and four rings. How does one define "anabolic?"
JT: Anabolic steroids are steroids
that have the potential to translate pieces of DNA into muscle. What that
means is that an anabolic steroid, when taken by a human or any mammal,
can produce new muscle. The method of doing that is complex because each
section of the DNA codes is for a different thing. That's what genes are
all about. There are sections which are there just to have anabolic
steroids attach to them - like testosterone for example. And when they do
so, it signals the DNA to translate into RNA -which is used to code for
new proteins. New protein means new muscle. DNA to RNA is called
translation. RNA to protein is called transcription. The steroid lands on
the DNA, attaches to it and starts the process of making new proteins.
Muscle is protein. And protein is not just muscle, it is enzymes in your
body - it's hair, it's all kinds of stuff. There are sections that are
just for new skeletal muscle.
CK: What are steroidal supplements?
JT: Again "steroidal" includes
anything that has that 4-ring construction. For example, the prohormones
or steroid precursors that are currently advertised everywhere, are
steroidal. All except for one difference, they resemble steroids. But
again, just because they have that shape doesn't mean they act like a
steroidal compound. It doesn't mean they do anything for muscle -certainly
not by themselves, because they don't. Steroid compounds are supplements.
I would consider that anything from vitamins, because they too have that
structure, to cortisone. All athletes know what cortisone is. Cortisone is
an anti-inflammatory steroid that breaks down tissue as opposed to
building up tissue. Steroids do a lot of different things. Some hormones
are steroids. The THG in the BALCO scandal is related to gestrinone, which
is used to treat endometriosis in women - where uterine tissue grows
outside the uterus where it shouldn't. Gestrinone doesn't grow muscle, but
it is absolutely a steroid. Again, anabolic is only one of several
different types of steroids.
The King of Steroids
CK: Is it safe to assume that, for
the general public, the mystification or taboo of steroids is essentially
linked to the world of anabolic steroids and, perhaps more recently, to
trendy steroidal supplements such as steroid precursors or prohormones,
also known as "legal steroids?"
JT: Yes, and I have a few numbers on
CK: Having defined anabolic steroids
and assuming that most people are only interested in teenage abuse or
their impact on the performance of elite athletes during the Olympic
Games, Tour de France and professional sports such as American football
and baseball, why are steroids so powerful?
JT: It is very complex and it is
still a bit of a mystery. But why they work so well is because of
evolution. Humans and all other
mammals have had a need to have hormones, to have steroids: for males and
females to develop at puberty, to grow muscles in order to stand up
straight, etc. Over a long evolutionary process the body has had time to
make more efficient and more effective hormones to achieve these ends. The
final product over time is testosterone. There isn't an anabolic steroid
out there that is better than testosterone. The body has had all this time
to make this "perfect" anabolic agent, this "perfect" muscle builder.
Right now, no scientist has made anything stronger. Scientists are trying
to take testosterone and make something better. That's what designer
steroids are about - the second coming of evolution.
CK: Is that why bodybuilders and
other elite athletes refer to testosterone as the "king of steroids?"
JT: Yes, it is the king and the
strongest. If evolution is true, the body has made innumerable genetic
changes over time to produce the perfect anabolic agent. Unfortunately,
for scientists, testosterone has side effects that we don't want such as
male-pattern baldness, acne, potential prostate
cancer. Still, the human body is amazing and
after millions of years, testosterone is what it has come up with.
CK: How long has science been trying
to make something better than testosterone?
JT: We knew about testosterone for a
long time. But it was in the 1930s that scientists in a lab isolated
testosterone from bull testicles.
CK: It was reported that scientists
in the Third Reich experimented with human testosterone and the German
JT: I also read that, but most
scientists had to adhere to regulations about humans and scientific
experimentation. Testosterone from bull testicles was the first time we
had mass samples of it in the lab where we could study it and do things to
it to try to change it.
CK: What about the first attempts to
JT : The isolation of the male
hormone testosterone dates to 1935 followed by the development of
synthetic variants in the late 1930s. That said, it exploded synthetically
with the work of Russell Marker who had studied the endocrine system and
was looking for ways to develop a birth control agent. Marker knew about
estrogen and those compounds related to it. He knew what you needed to
make birth control agents, but where would you isolate those from? For
some reason, he went to Mexico where a plant, the Mexican yam, yielded a
compound (diosgenin) that was closely related to estrogen. With six easy
chemical changes that any Masters-level chemist could perform, you get
progesterone which is a steroid. Several steps away from that is pure
estrogen. The compound was cheap to make and the Mexican yam was plentiful
thoughout Mexico - whereas to make a small amount of synthetic
testosterone, you had to kill so many bulls that it was inhumane. There
are also regulations governing the killing of bulls. Russell Marker's work
with the Mexican yam for a birth control agent marked the beginning of the
explosion of synthetic steroid production. Why? Because while Marker was
only concerned with developing a birth control agent, endocrinologists and
other scientists realized that Marker had found an efficient and cost
effective route to progesterone, the parent compound of testosterone and
to all anabolic steroids. The same is true in your body: from cholesterol
you have to run it to progesterone before you make anything else.
Progesterone is a natural branching point for other steroids and that is
why Marker's work was so huge for endocrinologists and chemists. Today
many companies that make pure anabolic steroids still use the Mexican yam.
Now that we know the recipe, it doesn't take a Ph.D. chemist to do it.
It's a simple conversion from the diosgenin of the Mexican yam to whatever
steroid you want to make. The 4-ring carbon chain, an otherwise complex
structure to make chemically, is already in place for you in nature. You
just have to mess around with things to change that. And this is where
synthetic chemistry comes in.
CK: Would you say that most people
are more familiar with steroids than they imagine? For example, if your
mother, your sister, wife or girlfriend takes birth control pills, they in
fact take steroids.
JT: Absolutely. Birth control is
estrogen or chemically-related compounds. A woman's estrogen levels change
naturally due to pregnancy or menstrual cycles. Birth control tricks the
body's awareness of its estrogen levels.
CK: If we return to anabolic steroid
design and sports.
JT: Steroid chemists are trying to
create a drug that doesn't convert to estrogen because estrogen has side
effects that you see in women who take birth control: water retention, fat
gain, and most spectacular: gynecomastia or development of breast tissue
CK: So, when athletes on testosterone
or other anabolic steroids talk of water retention and "bitch
tits", they are referring to the same
estrogen-related side effects that a woman experiences when her estrogen
levels change, either naturally or because she is taking birth control.
JT: Yes, because another side effect
of testosterone is its easy conversion to estrogen - a process known as
"aromatization." Again, steroid chemists are trying to create an
equivalent drug that doesn't convert to estrogen and eliminates the other
major negative side effects: androgenic effects, which is to say, severe
acne, male-pattern baldness, agressiveness, testicular atrophy, risk of
CK: Can you give us a few profiles of
the most popular anabolic steroids and why they would appeal to athletes
and their specific sports?
JT: Yes, of course. In fact, this
information is easily available on the Internet. Pharmaceutical companies
that make steroids publish steroid profiles as part of their marketing.
China, Mexico, Russia, Eastern Europe and the United States are all big
producers. Most products are for legitimate medical use. If your child
turns 14 and has not experienced puberty it is possible that a doctor will
prescribe steroids or growth hormone. That said, to give a child pure
testosterone or pure estrogen is problematic because of the androgenic or
estrogen effects of these hormones. Synthetic chemistry has attempted to
develop products which supply a healthy dose without the side effects. Men
with testosterone deficiencies and AIDS patients with muscle-wasting
conditions also currently benefit from steroids. Veterinary medicine is a
huge market for steroids. For one thing there aren't the stipulations
reserved for human use. Dogs in recovery after surgery are given steroids.
Horse racing has probably promoted
steroids more than anything else because you want to develop this huge
horse that runs better with a stronger cardio-vascular system. The same is
true of cattle. Bigger cows yield more beef to sell.
CK: Can you tell us more about
designer steroids and their impact on sports?
JT: Sure. In fact, I am going to take
you inside the head of a steroid designer. Back in the 1970s and 1980s,
there was no reason to sneak around. Steroids did not become a controlled
substance until 1991. Prior to that, anabolic steroids were already big
business, but they were not trying to get around a system. The point of
designer steroids was to create an anabolic steroid without the androgenic
or estrogenic side effects. As soon as steroids became a controlled
substance and illegal without prescription, all known steroid profiles
were indexed in an analytical machine known as a mass spectrometer.
Chemistry labs, like the Olympic Analytical Laboratory at UCLA that was
involved in the BALCO probe have all steroids on file and make use of this
machine. And the way you screen for steroids is to tests an athelete's
urine or blood against those known steroids on file. Each steroid has its
own finger print or molecular signature. When the mass spectrometer
indicates a match, the test is positive. In the past, anything other than
testosterone was a designer steroid and by definition simply an attempt to
lessen negative side effects in their clinical use. Designer steroids now
mean a change of the chemical compound so that it won't show up or match
any finger prints on file. In other words, steroid designers want to beat
the system. It's big business. A good example is THG or
tetrahydrogestrinone. Let me show you what THG really is:
Gestrinone is a synthetic hormone that for years was
used to treat endrometriosis in women. What the steroid designers did was
reduce the triple bond to a single bond. And now you have THG. A simple
chemical process, found in every chemistry textbook in the country, can
take take a carbon-carbon triple bond and change it to a carbon-carbon
single bond. They got lucky. The Olympic Lab would never test for this
because the original compound, gestrinone, has legitimate medicinal uses
and it has no anabolic effects at all. But if you simply reduce this
triple bond to a single bond you create a very powerful anabolic steroid
that is not on file anywhere. And that is why it is considered a "designer
steroid" - because it doesn't show up on the molecular signature charts.
The only reason the Olympic lab found out about it was because somebody
sent a syringe full of it to them. Otherwise, it is unlikely anybody would
think to look at a synthetic hormone used to treat endrometriosis in
CK: How easy is it to perform this
transformation in a lab?
JT: Very simple. There are reactions
that you run to go from a triple bond to a double bond and then to a
single bond. There are recipes for that. You can reduce gestrinone to THG
in any undergraduate chemistry lab. Understand though that the guy who
knew to look at gestrinone to begin with was a major chemist with a deep
knowledge of steroid drugs. In fact, he got this idea from a drug called
trenbolone (Finajet) which is a legal precursor made for
horses transformed to a very popular illegal
anabolic steroid known as parabolan. Some bodybuilders transform
trenbolone into parabolan in their kitchens. You order the steroid making
kit from a veterinary site over the Internet. What's more, the Web tells
you how to do it: "how to create illegal from legal."
CK: What about sterile conditions?
JT: That's the problem. A lot depends
on how good these guys are in their kitchens. There are strict regulations
on temperatures and bacteria when performed by professional laboratories.
And that is why some people become ill after taking these home
preparations, or they develop an abscess at the injection site.
CK: The 2004
Olympic Games in Athens were plagued by
suspicion and drug scandals. Can you be more specific about the most
popular anabolic steroids and why an athlete would choose to use them?
JT: Again, everything starts with
testosterone. With that in mind, let's look at methandrostenolone
(Dianabol), one of the most popular mass gainers ever. Commonly known as
D-bol, Dianabol is the penultimate teen anabolic. Most anabolic steroid
abuse in America is due to Dianabol. Because sports are such a priority in
the South, every teenage jock that I have ever known
started with D-bol. It makes you look big and strong in record time, but
in reality the androgenic side effects are also immediately visible:
excessive water retention and bloating. Moreover, once you come off D-bol,
you lose most of your gains because they were essentially all water and
fat at the subcutaneous level.
Chemically what's different from testosterone?
You have the OH (hydroxyl group, an oxygen and
hydrogen atom attached to the steroidal backbone) in place. Everything is
pointing in the same direction. Everything is the same except for the
extra carbon-carbon double bond which, incidentally, increases appetite
and glucose uptake into muscle cells. Another major difference is that
D-bol is a pill and the methyl group (CH3) at position 17 is what makes it
a pill. The 17 position, which refers to the 17th carbon in the 4-ring
carbon chain, is one of the most important positions with steroids, and
refers to our original definition of steroid. Testosterone has to be
injected. If you take it orally, it is eliminated. It never gets absorbed
because of stomach acids. You put this one little CH3 at the 17th
position, it's now orally active. At the same time, every time you see the
CH3 in this position you also know it will be liver toxic. The CH3 also
implies that, even though less of the drug is converted to estrogen, what
little is converted is even stronger than estrogen. Therefore, although
D-bol might have fewer effects than testosterone, there is still a lot
there. The designers improved on testosterone, but not to a great extent.
Football players, powerlifters, wrestlers, world's strongest
men, bodybuilders are those most likely to use
Dianabol for the following reasons: it increases appetite, it has the same
carbon-carbon double bond as testosterone and thus will be converted to
estrogen - promoting weight gain via fat and water retention. Because
D-bol resembles testosterone so strongly, it will be a strong anabolic.
Dianabol is rarely taken by female athletes because of the strong
androgenic, estrogenic and virilization side effects: deepening of the
voice, enlargement of the clitoris, facial hair plus the excessive water
retention and bloating. If people were more educated, D-bol
would not be so popular, but given its easy availability and inexpensive
cost, it remains an anabolic steroid of choice. It is popular for the same
reasons pro-hormones or steroid precursors are popular: uneducated
Please click here for page two