Athletes, Drug Testing, and Deer Antler – The Real Story

The sporting media is up in antlers with reports that allege Ray Lewis used a deer antler spray in his injury comeback.  The questions as to whether deer antler is banned and whether its use could lead to a doping violation are indeed complex.  We felt it was time to peel back the velvet to answer those questions and review the facts on deer antler.

Deer antler has a long history of use in Chinese medicine and is used ‘to decrease fatigue and improve sleep and appetite. In animal tests, deer antler has been shown to increase oxygen uptake in the brain, liver and kidneys, and increase red and white blood cell production.’  Traditionally it is available in the form of antler slices, powders, and extracts.  In its natural form, it is likely a legal dietary ingredient under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA); it has been sold at herbologists and various natural product stores for some time.

Deer antler has gained popularity as a dietary supplement over the last few years.  Some manufacturers, like LuRong Living Essential, grind the actual antler into powder form and encapsulate it in ingestible capsules.  (For the record, our company Banned Substances Control Group has certified LuRong Living Essential to be free of methyltestosterone [see below] and other contaminants.)

Other manufacturers sell the deer antler as a concentrated extract in a spray form.  The sprays, often with names like IGF-1+, are marketed as anti-aging and/or performance-enhancing agents and are offered with different dosages of IGF-1.  The sprays carry claims that the IGF-1 is delivered to the body through liposomal absorption, meaning it would be absorbed through membranes, such as those in the mouth, as opposed to having to enter the body through digestion.

Whether the spray forms are legal under U.S. law is unclear.  If deer antler is chemically altered to standardize the amount of IGF-1 present or to make it absorbable, then the spray form of deer antler is likely illegal under DSHEA.  However, we will let the FDA sort that out; we are here to examine issues related to drugs in sport.

In the realm ofSWATS spray pic sport, the hoopla started with a spray form of deer antler called The Ultimate Spray, marketed by Sports with Alternative to Steroids (SWATS), that was involved in David Vobora’s NFL positive drug test for the steroid methyltestosterone in 2009.  During the course of the civil action following Vobora’s suspension, Vobora had the spray he used tested and it was found to be contaminated with methyltestosterone.  Vobora won a $5.4 million ruling as a result.

As the article notes, we tested the spray at our nonprofit/NGO Anti-Doping Research for The Post Game in 2011 and did not find methyltestosterone.  This highlights an important point: that one batch of a product can be contaminated and another batch clean, something that athletes need to consider.

All this attention prompted MLB and NFL to issue warnings to players regarding the use of deer antler.  Interestingly, the MLB warning did not focus on the IGF-1 issue but rather on the issue of methyltestosterone contamination.  The NFL warning meanwhile concentrated more on the IGF-1 issue and questioned the appropriateness of its players or coaches representing such a product.

Confusion has swirled ever since culminating in Super Bowl fashion with allegations that Ray Lewis used the very same SWATS spray in his triceps recovery.  ESPN ticker reports are now alleging that the Alabama football team may have used the spray as well.

Whether deer antler is banned in sport and whether its use would be considered a doping violation comes down to whether it is ingested or absorbed and whether it has been certified to be free of potential contaminants like methyltestosterone.

Is deer antler a banned substance?

No, deer antler is not listed as a banned substance today in any sport.  It is true that deer antler naturally contains IGF-1, a substance banned in sport.  However, so do animal food products like red meat, eggs or milk and other common dietary supplement ingredients like colostrum.  Many food products contain IGF-1 or other growth factors that are banned in sport yet consuming them does not constitute or lead to doping violations.  The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) supports this notion but does not exactly provide clarity with their confusing note on colostrum: “Colostrum is not prohibited per se, however it contains certain quantities of IGF-1 and other growth factors which are prohibited and can influence the outcome of anti-doping tests. Therefore WADA does not recommend the ingestion of this product.”

Would using deer antler be considered use of a banned substance in sport?

In our opinion, the answer comes down to the form used.  Scientific publications agree that when IGF-1 is ingested in the form of colostrum it is not absorbed by the body and would ‘not elicit positive results on drug tests.’  Assuming the same is true of the IGF-1 in deer antler or other food products, ingesting the IGF-1 is unlikely to be construed as a violation of drug testing regulations since no banned substance is absorbed by the body.  Therefore, ingestible deer antler products should be acceptable for athletes to use under current rules.  Conversely, using a spray form of deer antler concentrated to contain certain amounts of IGF-1 that is delivered through liposomal absorption would likely constitute a doping violation, because if the product works as claimed the banned substance IGF-1 would be absorbed by the body.

Is IGF-1 detectable in the current sport drug testing system?

As the abstract of a recent publication states: “Currently, there is no test for the detection of IGF-1 introduced worldwide”.  This is not to say that the anti-doping community can not detect it as there are numerous publications that demonstrate the ability to do so.  IGF-1 is used as an important marker in the Sonksen test for human growth hormone that has been slowly gaining traction in the WADA community.  That said, we are not aware of a complete detection method for IGF-1 in use in sport drug testing today that can unequivocally determine if exogenous, or foreign, IGF-1 has entered the body.  So, if the deer antler sprays work as intended and IGF-1 is actually absorbed by the body, that may be a violation of drug testing policies but we do not believe it would result in a positive drug test in the current system.  Unfortunately, IGF-1 in general remains a major challenge for anti-doping authorities and is a huge potential loophole in the current doping control system.

Is there a way for athletes to protect themselves against the potential for methyltestosterone or other contamination to occur in deer antler products?

As with all dietary supplements, we would recommend that athletes only use batches or lots of products that have been certified by a reputable independent testing body to be free of banned substances.  We operate a program called BSCG Certified Drug Free® that offers testing services to manufacturers, teams and athletes to ensure that products are safe and free of banned and dangerous substances.

It is our view that if you are an athlete using a spray form of deer antler be aware that you are likely in violation of drug-testing rules even though the IGF-1 at issue may not be detectable currently.  If you want to use deer antler without violating drug-testing policies, you should be careful to use only an ingestible product that has been tested for potential contaminants like methyltestosterone.

This is a perfect example of the extremely complex issues we all face when considering the connections between dietary supplements and banned substances in sport.  We feel it is the responsibility of the leagues, the players associations, the anti-doping authorities, the FDA, supplement industry representatives, and scientific organizations like ours to come together to address the broader issues in some fashion.  As deer antler does not wander the forests alone, we owe it to the athletes to provide a concrete yes or no as to whether something is prohibited, as their careers and reputations are at stake.  We have the ability and the knowledge; we just need to make the effort.

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The Monetary Gap – One Reason for the Lance Armstrong Affair

LA photo from TVYesterday much of the world had to watch Oprah to see Lance Armstrong confess his doping for the first time.  Even Lance agrees that should have happened long ago. 

One of the most troubling elements of all of this is that drug testing began in the Olympics in 1968 more than 44 years ago and yet the system is still unable to distinguish who is a clean athlete.  Every decade we are faced with a groundbreaking scandal, and multiple times a year we are faced with an ordinary scandal resulting from doping in sport.  Just last week we finished a baseball hall of fame vote where a whole generation of players got snubbed largely because of doping, and yet it seemed ordinary. 

Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens… the list is long and spans all sports and generations when it comes to sport heroes and champions who have fallen, some even sacrificing their lives like Tommy Simpson, from using performance-enhancing drugs.  The question facing us all is why and what should we do about it, in much the same way we ask why and what to do about gun violence after witnessing the Newtown disaster. 

Now some may say hold on, you are way out of line.  There is no way to compare innocent children dying in a horrifying massacre to the performance-enhancing drug problem.  While we would agree with that in large part, we also point out that children are tragically affected by performance-enhancing drugs, figuring they have to use them to compete.  Sadly, some of our children even sacrifice their lives in pursuit of steroids and other drugs.  Just ask the Hooton’s, or the Garibaldi’s, or the Marrero’s or the other parents that have paid the ultimate price in losing a child to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. 

We consider the annual budget of the World Anti-Doping Agency at ~$28 million annually and the United States Anti-Doping Agency at $14 million.  We assume UK Sport and Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority are equivalent to USADA for another $28 million.  The NFL spent $10 million in 2011.  We will put MLB at $10 million as well although their updated new program likely will come with additional cost.  The sport of cycling was estimated to spend $4.7 million and tennis (ITF) $1.3 million per year in 2011 for another $6 million.  If we assume there are 150 other countries and sporting bodies spending an average of $1-2 million annually on anti-doping, that adds another $150-300 million.  All said we estimate the total annual anti-doping budget worldwide to be $246-396 million, which compares to the budget of a small pharmaceutical company – and our estimate is probably on the high side. 

At the same time, you consider that Lance Armstrong made an estimated $17.5 million in endorsements alone in 2005.  Alex Rodriguez, another previous doper, makes $29 million per year in salary alone.  Annual budgets for professional cycling teams range from several million up to $25 million for a team like Sky.  The median team payroll in Major League Baseball is around $90 million while the total payroll for the league is a staggering $2.94 billion.  The total payroll in the NFL is even higher at almost $3.4 billion.  Finally consider the $3.2 billion in endorsement contracts for Nike athletes alone over the next 5 years.  All told, professional and Olympic athletes and teams have easily more than $10 billion in annual resources. 

When Lance Armstrong’s endorsements plus A-Rod’s salary alone totals more than $46.5 million, eclipsing the WADA and USADA annual budgets by $4.5 million.  When the drug-testing programs for MLB and NFL represent 0.3% of annual player salaries.  When the estimated annual amount spent worldwide on anti-doping testing, legal matters and research at ~$246-396 million represents 2-4% of the more than $10 billion in resources available to athletes perhaps we begin to see the scope of the problem.  Those who want to dope can afford to beat the system; at present the monetary gap is simply too great for the system to overcome. 

Now we consider the response.  There have already been countless hours of media content alone dedicated to Lance Armstrong.  We tried to estimate the dollars spent and considered 500 media outlets spending an average of $10,000 each on the coverage.  That would be $5 million alone spent covering the issue worldwide, by the end of this whole affair it is likely to be 10 or 50 times that amount, and our estimate is likely conservative. 

Those of us in the anti-doping community don’t expect $6 billion to be dropped off anytime soon, but it would be nice to see the resources available to anti-doping double or triple at least.  If we can’t afford to give anti-doping a fighting chance by providing the movement with the financial resources needed to effectuate change, then we are part of the problem and we can settle in for a continuing parade of scandals. 

It is up to sport and those that care about it to ensure adequate resources are available to establish and maintain a reality of clean competition.  The athletes, sport, and the next generations of athletes and sports fans deserve a drug testing system that can deliver to the world clean sporting champions, ones we can believe in and trust.  With an outmatched system that can’t expose dirty athletes, even athletes who want to compete clean feel they have to dope to win, and we simply can’t accept that reality.  The risks are too great to sport and the individuals who dedicate their lives to it. 

But it is not just about the money, it is about finding real solutions that can improve the drug-testing system and approach in place today, with or without more resources.  Stay tuned as our dinner conversations have been generating some interesting ideas….

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