Colabello, Oral Turinabol and the MLB Positive Drug Tests

turanabol_j500Intrigue continues to swirl after a recent article in SportsNet brought up potential questions surrounding Chris Colabello’s Major League Baseball positive drug test for Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone, otherwise known as DHCMT or Oral Turinabol. The article quoted statements by our Chief Science Officer, Don Catlin, M.D., apparently questioning the test results and also exploring a common point source of DHCMT. We wished to provide additional clarity as to Dr. Catlin’s views on the test results and add some thoughts on Colabello, oral turinabol and the MLB positive drug tests.

First we wanted to clarify the comments made as to the test results and laboratory data. Dr. Catlin was quoted in the article in the excerpt below:

“The one (DHCMT) case where I looked at the laboratory data, I didn’t think it was very good,” he said in an interview with Sportsnet.

Asked what that meant, Catlin, who has overseen drug testing at multiple Olympics and years ago received a grant from Major League Baseball to help develop a test for HGH, replied: “There’s a long process involved and I just didn’t think the laboratory did a very good job in demonstrating that the (DHCMT) metabolite was present in the urine. But I didn’t want to get into it because of a whole bunch of other issues.”

While that doesn’t necessarily exonerate the players, from a scientific perspective, isn’t that an issue?

“It’s a huge issue, yes.”

Enough of an issue that a player can use it in appeal process?

“Sure.”

And present a reasonable case, and perhaps even win?

“Yes. But that would be a huge concern for baseball and (the testing lab in) Montreal.”

Because it would call into question the results of other tests and open the door for multiple athletes to contest their doping sanction?

“Right. I did not wish to get into it. But I was interested not so much in the chemistry, but in the source. The three baseball players I talked to were all adamant that they had never used it, didn’t know what it was. And that’s fairly typical, but it also suggests that there’s a source of it somewhere, and my view of it was that it was probably coming from a supplement that they all took.”

Please allow us to distill the intended meaning behind those comments in relation to Colabello, oral turinabol and the MLB positive drug tests. Before we begin, please consider that Dr. Catlin has been reviewing laboratory documentation packages for more than three decades, both those from his own UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, as well as those from other laboratories in the WADA system. He is regarded in the anti-doping arena not only as one of the most renowned scientists but as one of its most frank individuals.

In this situation, Dr. Catlin was taking issue with the way in which the data in the documentation package was presented, not the underlying chemistry involved. This should not come as a surprise to our friend and dedicated colleague Christiane Ayotte, Ph.D., director of the respected Montreal laboratory; it is probably not the first time she has heard Dr. Catlin gripe about her doc packs (Madame Ayotte, malheursement le Don reste inchangé). Gripes aside, it does not mean the results were wrong.

Is it, “Enough of an issue that a player can use it in appeal process?” In Dr. Catlin’s view, if a documentation package is not presented in a clear fashion, it can leave room for athletes or their representatives and experts to attempt to construct a reasonable case to refute the finding. That is what he was alluding to in his response.

As for the chemistry, Dr. Catlin said he did not want to get into it, but wanted to focus instead on the possible source of the issue. As for Colabello, oral turinabol, and the MLB positive drug tests the results ultimately indicated the presence of a long-term metabolite of DHCMT. No parent drug was found and no other metabolite was identified, which is common when relying on the recently identified DHCMT long-term metabolite to detect long-term use of the drug. The finding was considered to be a trace finding for the long-term metabolite of DHCMT.

Before exploring potential sources of DHCMT, we wanted to comment on the DHCMT test itself, and the chemistry involved. Oral turinabol is an old drug that became infamous when it was the primary drug fueling the East German state-sponsored doping from 1968-88. The testing for the drug initially had a short window of detection of a few days. As research expanded on the drug and additional metabolites were identified, the retrospectivity of the testing improved to about 20 days.

In the last several years, a new long-term metabolite, referred to as the M4 metabolite, was identified that increases the window of detection to at least 40-50 days, perhaps longer. The chemistry of DHCMT, however, appears to be such that after 20 days only the long-term metabolite would be detectable, while the parent and other identifying metabolites would no longer be detectable. While not many drugs in the WADA system rely on the presence of a single metabolite to demonstrate the presence of a drug, doing so is certainly acceptable.

When validating such methods, it is commonplace to verify that there are no ‘false positives.’ Whether there could be a genetic anomaly that may produce a ‘false positive’ circumstance that did not present itself during the validation process remains a remote possibility that presents a difficult theory to explore. Many of the athletes in question have been tested before and did not produce positive results. Chasing an inconsistent anomaly could prove to be an endless pursuit. Cody Stanley’s circumstances certainly heighten the intrigue behind the theory, but it has yet to be considered or proven.

Unfortunately, limited research dollars are available to the anti-doping community and labs rightfully use those to validate and demonstrate new testing methods, as they have in the case of DHCMT. However, the community is certainly not afforded the resources to research all the theories on how a ‘false positive’ might occur. As you can imagine, we hear a lot of theories in that regard. If such a possibility does exist, we know our dedicated colleagues in anti-doping like Dr. Ayotte, the experienced folks at Kings College, Cologne, the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory and others will be working diligently to evaluate it and further improve the testing platform for DHCMT.

As for the potential sources of DHCMT, unfortunately it is not hard to find. A quick google search for supplements that contain DHCMT or oral turinabol brings up at least ten different websites where you can buy the drug in pill form. It is clear that oral turinabol remains available, likely through raw material providers in China or elsewhere. Unfortunately, many of these raw material providers also offer legitimate and legal supplement ingredients to the supplement marketplace, leaving open the real possibility for inadvertent contamination of benign products.

In that regard, we recommend that athletes take supplements that have been certified to be free of banned substances by an independent third-party—through programs like ours at BSCG Certified Drug Free® or the others you can explore on our comparison chart. Make sure to evaluate the technical details of such programs to ensure they provide adequate protection against banned substances. Athletes should verify that a particular lot number has been certified to ensure a representative sample of what they consume has been cleared of prohibited drugs.Osta Rx

Since DHCMT remains prevalent online and as a raw material, it is plausible that a contaminated supplement could have been responsible for the rash of recent DHCMT positive drug tests. Several supplements included on the USADA High Risk List present oral turinabol concerns, like Alpha-4D, OrlaTEST, and Osta RX. Osta RX was labelled to contain the banned substance ostarine, a selective androgen receptor modulator (SARM), but instead testing revealed the presence of oral turinabol.

However, since multiple athletes are involved, who use a variety of different supplements, the possibility of a single point source of DHCMT being a single supplement product common to the athletes is unlikely. The players say they were using only certified supplements, so that possibility is further diminished. Whether there could be widespread trace contamination of a single ingredient that may have resulted in multiple supplements being contaminated with trace amounts of DHCMT seems like a slim possibility but still in the realm of consideration.

Ultimately, the following scenarios remain plausible in regards to Colabello, oral turinabol and the MLB positive drug tests: The athletes in question took oral turinabol after purchasing it online as part of a doping regiment that had worked in the past, believing the window of detection was still narrow. There could be contamination coming from dietary supplements, or their ingredients, that resulted in trace findings for the long term DHCMT metabolite in the various athlete urine samples. Finally, there is the theory that a common genetic anomaly, or another substance related to DHCMT that is present in the environment, could produce the same long-term DHCMT metabolite used for detection in trace amounts in some athletes—remote possibilities that have yet to be demonstrated.

A few questions remain open, but none seem to present a significant possibility of providing an explanation. Nonetheless, we will certainly be watching with great intrigue to see if the burgeoning list of DHCMT positives continues to grow in MLB and elsewhere.

Gordon Adds Another Dee to PED Discussion – The Steroid Dilemma Continues for MLB

Baseball Stadium - 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Photo by Oliver Catlin

Baseball Stadium – 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Photo by Oliver Catlin

While most people were waking up to a wonderful Friday morning, baseball fans were discovering some more depressing news in the announcement that Dee Gordon, infielder for the Miami Marlins, has been suspended 80 games due to test results revealing two performance-enhancing drugs (PED) in his system. Gordon had originally appealed the decision, but decided against appealing Friday morning.

Thursday night, Gordon revealed to his teammates, after a 4-game sweep of his former team in Los Angeles, that he tested positive earlier this year for synthetic testosterone and Clostebol, an anabolic steroid. He released a statement this morning through the MLB Players Association saying the following:  “Though I did not do so knowingly, I have been informed that test results showed I ingested something that contained prohibited substances. The hardest part about this is feeling that I have let down my teammates, the organization and the fans. I have been careful to avoid products that could contain something banned by MLB and the 20+ tests that I have taken and passed throughout my career prove this. I made a mistake, and I accept the consequences.”

Responses to the statement have been coming faster than Dee Gordon stealing second. Players, from all teams, are showing concern and making comments on the news about Gordon’s suspension.

Figure 1 Tweets by MLB players in response to Dee Gordon's PED suspension

Figure 1 Tweets by MLB players in response to Dee Gordon’s PED suspension

Justin Verlander’s Twitter response adds powerful perspective to the issue and shows how personal it is to the players, the majority of whom love and respect our national pastime.

Figure 2 - Twitter post made by Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers

Figure 2 Twitter post made by Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers. 

Why was Gordon Allowed to continue playing when these test results came in?

Gordon won the National League batting title in 2015 and was an All-Star player while with the Dodgers and the Marlins. Having him on the field obviously makes him a valuable asset to a team. You can ask anyone who was at Dodger Stadium Thursday night when Gordon “delivered the game-tying RBI single for the Marlins in the seventh inning,” which more or less solidified the series sweep.

Gordon had originally appealed the test results, meaning that nothing was going to be released publicly until the situation had been decided, which is in accordance with MLB policy. He was allowed to continue to take the field while the case was going through the appeal process. The news became public Friday morning, because Gordon decided to no longer appeal the results. But his answer just leads to more questions.

Should the punishment be more severe for players who cheat?

The topic of performance-enhancing drugs in the league has been trending lately due to the recent announcement of the Chris Colabello doping violation a week ago, Taylor Teagarden’s suspension earlier this month, as well as allegations of Chicago Cubs’ pitcher, Jake Arrieta, cheating after his recent successes on the field drew attention. Gordon’s suspension has further catalyzed conversations already in motion about what to do with his test results as well as the punishments associated with them.

The USA Today summarized the MLB penalties as of March 28, 2014 as follows: “Players and owners announce penalties will increase to 80 games for a first testing violation and to 162 for a second, and a season-long suspension will result in a complete loss of that year’s salary, rather than 162-183rds. A player who serves a PED suspension during the season will be ineligible for that year’s postseason.”

Even with these changes made, is it enough to incentivize players to not cheat? Many aren’t so sure. In an article released on April 21, by Fox Sports, the opinions players have about the MLB drug-testing program were discussed. Ever opinionated on the topic, Verlander discussed a potential way to clean up the league. “Maybe more severe punishments,” he said. He also mentioned that “It’s too easy for guys to serve a suspension and come back and still get paid,” which is what will happen with Gordon.

Another player, Matt Holliday from the St. Louis Cardinals, gave his take on punishments for cheating players in the article. “If you’re caught taking something where they prove that you’re trying to cheat,” he said, “that it’s a legitimate steroid or testosterone. I’m all for a year, two years, to keep guys from trying to cheat…for as harsh a penalty as possible. I’m all for second chances. But if you make the penalty super, super stiff, guys will think twice. They’ll look at 80 games and think, ‘That’s not that big a deal.’ But if you start taking away two years, that’s a lot of money. That might be different.”

We can all speculate that harsher punishments would make it a more difficult decision for players to take banned substances. They would also make it even more of a priority to be aware of what is in dietary supplement products or other medications athletes use. Lack of knowledge in this area can lead to problems, just ask Maria Sharapova, who tested positive at the Australian Open for the banned substance Meldonium. Thankfully, in the case of supplements, third-party certification programs like the BSCG Certified Drug Free® program are available that evaluate and test supplements to ensure they are free of banned substances to help mitigate the risks for athletes.

Is there incentive for players to cheat, regardless of the current punishments?

Gordon was traded to the Miami Marlins at the end of his best season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014. Flash Gordon looked great in Dodger blue. Many fans in Chavez Ravine were sad to see him leave, especially having seen his stats soar after leaving. Of course, now that Gordon added another Dee to the PED discussion opinions have changed as we don’t need another superstar turned PED poster boy in L.A.

Last season, Gordon won the National League batting title with a .333 average. That was a big deal, due to the fact that he was neck-and-neck with Washington Nationals outfielder, Bryce Harper. He also led the league in stolen bases, with 58, a number not seen since JACKIE ROBINSON (yes, that guy) did it in 1949. Dee Gordon ended 2015 with the label “Big Deal” associated with his name and, as a result, was given a five-year, $50 million contract extension with the Miami Marlins.

Interviews were conducted before the 4-game series against the Dodgers on April 25th, prior to Gordon’s announcement. It was there, when Don Mattingly, who you might know as Donnie Baseball or the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2011 to 2015, discussed being the new manager of the Marlins and his thoughts of Gordon as a player, “What I always liked about him was his swing. You have to remember he was 140-something pounds when he started and now he’s brought it up to about 170. This is a kid that’s put on a lot of mature strength and his speed tools aren’t going away. That’s something that makes you feel really good about what he can do.”

As his manager ironically noted, Gordon was getting bigger, stronger, and better. The pressures that come with playing at this level include maintaining his skills in order to prove he is deserving of that label “Big Deal”. It isn’t unfathomable for a player to resort to taking performance-enhancing drugs in order to keep oneself at that professional level. It has been done before!

Gordon’s current punishment, aside from the 80-game suspension, includes a fine of $1.65 million. One might think that is a lot of money, until you realize it doesn’t even touch the $48.35 million he is still guaranteed on his contract. This being said, one could conclude that Gordon fought hard to earn this big paycheck, at any means possible, because cheating was worth close to fifty million dollars for him.   

Did Gordon use performance-enhancing drugs with mal intent? Did he cheat to gain weight and strength throughout his career? Was he trying to keep that “Big Deal” label while in Miami, or make it even bigger? Could this be something that happened unknowingly as his public statement claims?

While those questions linger, a single theme seems to resonate in professional baseball; even though a player’s failed test leads to a tarnished reputation, or demotion to the minor leagues, or retirement, or 80 game sanctions, he still makes millions of dollars. This is perhaps one reason why the issue of abusing banned substances in professional sports can be rationalized by players. Buster Olney’s statement about Gordon’s suspension puts it well, “the incentive to cheat will far outweigh the risks involved in being caught. Whatever the intent, whatever the justification, PED crime in baseball pays well.

If we can learn anything from the past two days, it is that the PED discussion is far from over in MLB. Those who thought the steroid era was over may need to reconsider. We also need to reconsider how the system can be improved and made stronger for the sake of the players and the fans who love our nation’s pastime. For now, Gordon is just another name added to the list of MLB players that have tested positive for PEDs. He isn’t the first, sadly–he won’t be the last.