The Development of Key Performance-Enhancing Drug Tests
Since founding the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory in 1982 and serving as its director for 25 years, Don H. Catlin, M.D., has been instrumental in discovering new performance-enhancing drugs and establishing methods to uncover athletes’ use of various substances. His research, while both conducting doping control and simply focusing on new and evolving drugs, has been vital in the creation of many of the tests currently used to detect performance-enhancing drugs. As the New York Times noted in 2007, “Some call Dr. Don Catlin… the father of drug testing in sports.”
He and his son, executive Oliver Catlin, founded the well-regarded supplement certification provider BSCG (Banned Substances Control Group) in 2004. The Catlins’ expertise is unparalleled and often sought on the more complicated issues facing both anti-doping research and supplement testing. Here, we’ll take a brief look at some of Dr. Catlin’s key performance-enhancing drug (PED) breakthroughs and where more information can be found about them.
Renowned anti-doping pioneer Dr. Don H. Catlin in his Los Angeles laboratory in 2008. (Photo from The Catlin Consortium.)
Developed the CIR Technique to Distinguish Natural from Artificial Testosterone
In the late 1990s, Dr. Don Catlin was the first to develop and offer the carbon isotope ratio, or CIR, test to determine whether testosterone or an anabolic steroid has been made naturally by the body or has come from a prohibited substance. This highly accurate test was the first technique capable of detecting synthetic testosterone, rather than simply gauging the body’s reaction to the substance. Dr. Catlin used for comparison a person’s endogenous reference compound (ERC) such as cholesterol to help determine the body’s natural carbon make-up. The testosterone CIR test was considered revolutionary and has proven useful and highly reliable; despite many challenges by athletes testing positive over the years, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has never found any fault with it.
See an info-graph about his test put together in 2006 for the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2006/08/01/sports/02landis-graphic.html
Catlin DH, Hatton CK, Starcevic S. Issues in detecting xenobiotic anabolic steroids and testosterone by analysis of athletes’ urine. Clinical Chemistry 1997;43:1280-1288.
First Reported Use of a Form of EPO (Darbepoetin Alfa) in Sport
While overseeing the drug testing at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Dr. Catlin revealed the use of a form of EPO, or erythropoietin, (darbepoetin alfa), for the first time in sport. He used a new test developed by French scientist Dr. Françoise Lasne to detect this long-lasting form of EPO, a then newly approved drug for anemia patients that helps boost red blood cells and aids in endurance but can lead to serious health outcomes such as heart attack and stroke. Three Olympic cross-country skiers, including gold medalists Larissa Lazutina of Russia and Johann Muehlegg of Spain, were suspended and their medals stripped after they were found using the substance in Olympic competition.
For a thorough introductory account of this story, read the nonfiction book “The Night Olympic Team” (Boyds Mills Press, 2008), written for older kids by Caroline Hatton, Ph.D., one of the scientists working in the Olympic lab under Dr. Catlin.
Catlin DH, Breidbach A, Elliott S, Glaspy J. Comparison of the isoelectric focusing patterns of darbepoetin alfa, recombinant human erythropoietin, and endogenous erythropoietin from human urine. Clinical Chemistry 2002. 48: 2057-9. Full Text PDF
First Reported Designer Steroid, Norbolethone
In 2002, Dr. Catlin was the first to report the use of a designer anabolic steroid in sport. He identified norbolethone (or norboletone) for the first time in an athlete’s urine sample. Norbolethone had been developed in the 1960s as a treatment for growth and weight gain but was deemed harmful and never brought to market. Patrick Arnold and Victor Conte introduced it to athletes through the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO). Dr. Catlin’s discovery of the substance was a wake-up call that some athletes were abusing designer steroids. The Chicago Tribune named Catlin Sportsman of the Year for 2002.
More about norbolethone and Dr. Catlin’s original test can be found on PubChem, a website of the U.S. National Library of Medicine: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/norbolethone#section=Top
Catlin DH, Ahrens BD, Kucherova Y. Detection of norbolethone, an anabolic steroid never marketed, in athletes’ urine. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 2002. 16:1273-5.
Second Reported Designer Steroid, THG
In 2003, Dr. Catlin identified and developed a test for THG, or tetrahydrogestrinone, the second reported designer anabolic steroid. This discovery famously came from a sample contained in a used syringe delivered anonymously to USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency), who subsequently passed it along to Dr. Catlin for testing. THG was the active ingredient in “The Clear,” a previously “undetectable steroid” created and distributed by BALCO to some top American and British Olympic and professional athletes. Dr. Catlin credited his large team of capable researchers and chemists with finding the substance and developing a new test for it, saying the accomplishments “took all the skills that are represented in this lab.” In 2009, Newsweek magazine named coach Trevor Graham’s decision to send the syringe to USADA one of the decade’s “Top-10 History-Altering Decisions.”
For more about Dr. Catlin and the BALCO story, read this 2004 Washington Post article by Amy Shipley: “One Mastermind Behind Two Steroids,” July 29, 2004. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A22151-2004Jul28.html
Catlin DH, Sekera MH, Ahrens BD, Starcevic B, Chang YC, Hatton CK. Tetrahydrogestrinone: discovery, synthesis, and detection in urine. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 2004. 18: 1245-9.
Third Reported Designer Steroid, Madol or DMT
In 2004, Dr. Catlin identified madol, the third reported designer anabolic steroid. Madol, short for methylandrostenol, and also known as DMT, or desoxymethyltestosterone, (not to be confused with dimethyltryptamine) was the active ingredient in the third generation of “The Clear,” found during a raid of the BALCO lab in 2003. The steroid, a potent testosterone derivative that can seriously damage the liver and heart, was designed in the early 1960s but never made it to market. After being discovered in dietary supplements, DMT was made a controlled substance in the United States in 2010.
For more about DMT, THG, and BALCO, see the news article “Athletics: New steroid designed to fool drug-testers,” from Reuters, The New Zealand Herald, Feb. 2, 2005. http://m.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=10009252
Sekera MH, Ahrens BD, Chang YC, Starcevic B, Georgakopoulos C, Catlin DH. Another designer steroid: discovery, synthesis, and detection of ‘madol’ in urine. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 2005. 19: 781-4.
Multiple Reports of New Anabolic Steroids
In 2005, Dr. Catlin discovered five new designer anabolic steroids in dietary supplements sent to him for testing by the Washington Post. One substance found in the supplement Halodrol-50 closely resembled oral turinabol, the principal anabolic steroid abused by East German Olympic athletes in the 1960s and ’70s. Some 800 athletes later reported serious ailments after taking that steroid, referred to as “the blue bean.” Halodrol-50 was discontinued but a version called Halodrol resurfaced online in 2016.
Dr. Catlin also found the new designer steroid methasterone in the supplement Superdrol. This discovery prompted anti-doping authorities to focus on curtailing the sale and use of pro-hormone supplements, often toxic to the liver. WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) soon added the compound to its list of banned substances in sport, and in 2009 the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) raided Bodybuilding.com in part over the sale of the compound, which represented the largest enforcement action up to that time in the supplement industry.
See early Washington Post story, “Steroids Detected In Dietary Tablets,” by Amy Shipley, Nov. 30, 2005: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/sports/2005/11/30/steroids-detected-in-dietary-tablets/938990b4-5956-48a5-8804-7f5ae6d561e3/?utm_term=.9d357da69081
“Designer Steroids: Hide and Seek” by Amy Shipley, Bonnie Berkowitz, and Christina Rivero, Washington Post, Oct. 18, 2005. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2005/10/18/GR2005101800648.html
“Forgotten victims of East German doping take their battle to court,” by Luke Harding, The Guardian, Oct. 31, 2005: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2005/nov/01/athletics.gdnsport3
“Bodybuilding.com, LLC and Jeremy DeLuca Plead Guilty in Federal Court to Violating FDCA,” FDA News Release, May 22, 2012. https://www.fda.gov/ICECI/CriminalInvestigations/ucm305494.htm
Catlin DH. Anabolic steroids. In DeGroot LJ, Jameson JL, eds. Endocrinology Elsevier Saunders 2006; 5th Edition: 3265-82. (Book chapter.)
First Report of the Designer Stimulant Methylhexaneamine
In 2006, in another analysis of a dietary supplement at the behest of the Washington Post, Dr. Catlin was first to identify the designer stimulant methylhexaneamine, a potentially deadly amphetamine-like substance. This compound was found in Ergopharm’s Ergolean AMP, a product formulated by BALCO chemist Patrick Arnold, who was then awaiting sentencing for his role there. The product was pulled from the market, but in 2011 USADA issued an official warning to athletes to avoid the dangerous stimulant in a range of supplement products after a rash of positive test results. Unlike some problematic supplement ingredients, this compound often could be found in supplement ingredient lists—under the names methylhexaneamine, 1,3-dimethylamylamine (DMAA), dimethylpentylamine (DMP) 4-methylhexan-2-amine, Geranamine, and geranium oil, extract, or stems and leaves.
For more information, see the original Washington Post story “Chemist’s New Product Contains Hidden Substance,” by Amy Shipley, May 8, 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/07/AR2006050700913_2.html
USADA Advisory “Beware: Your Supplement Could Cause a Positive Test,” June 16, 2011. http://www.usada.org/athlete-advisory-methylhexaneamine-and-dietary-supplements/
A Multitude of Contributions
Dr. Catlin’s contributions to detecting PEDs have extended beyond these remarkable breakthroughs. Among other things, he determined the pharmacokinetics of steroids such as androstenedione (“andro,” formerly sold over the counter) and DHEA, provided analytical consulting as part of government action to identify and expose designer drugs like the aromatase inhibitor 6-OXO and the designer steroid Tren in supplement products, and succeeded at adapting a test for the potent blood-boosting drug CERA (sold under the brand name Mircera) for equines.
For more information about Dr. Don Catlin and his current work safeguarding supplements, visit the BSCG website at http://www.bscg.org/.
Note: The term “designer steroid” is defined as a synthetic steroid derived by simple chemical modification from another steroid, often an anabolic steroid. The word “designer,” however, can refer to compounds that are either novel or recycled and repurposed as performance-enhancers. Today these problematic substances sometimes find their way into legally sold supplement products.
— Joseph Taylor