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DESIGNER STEROIDS: SPEEDING EVOLUTION
(AND FILLING STADIUM SEATS)

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.

Scientists are trying to take testosterone and make something better. That's what designer steroids are about - the second coming of evolution.

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 professional orientation?

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 those.

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 military.

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 synthesize it?

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 in men.

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 prostate cancer.

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.

BALCO Scandal

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:


Tetrahydrogestrinone

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 women.

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 consumers.

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