The undetectable drug has always been a sexy and chilling idea. As performance-enhancers go, there's not much new under the sun, but when it comes to getting results and beating tests, it's usually been more about marketing than effectiveness.
However, that has changed. This type of performance-enhancing drug is no longer a concept. It's real and it's for sale. It's called MGF (mechano growth factor).
That drug may now be circulating at Sochi. According to German television channel WDR—a translation of its work can be found at Science—a Russian scientist was offering 100 mg of the substance for $100,000.
The BBC had already reported on the availability of the drug prior to the Olympics. In addition, Bleacher Report has received additional information that MGF is currently available from several suppliers, including at least one that is selling the drug online despite the ongoing knowledge of USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency).
Information obtained by means of the Freedom of Information Act shows that USADA has been aware of this drug and its suppliers since at least 2008 and likely before, reporting it to the FDA (Food and Drug Adminstration).
Beyond that, it has done nothing to stop the sale of the drug or make others aware this was a potential issue. Simple searches found multiple locations where the substance was for sale, including the site that USADA noted in 2008.
Instead, the agency has looked to do what it's always done.
Catching a high-profile athlete rather than strangling the source seems like the opposite of a normal drug case. In most situations, the kingpin is the target, not the user. Turning a dealer might get to a distributor, but USADA has always gone the opposite way, trying to flip dealers on users. The BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative) case has become its model despite limited success.
USADA has made several complaints, ranging back more than five years, regarding the parent company of one U.S.-based distributor. Emails obtained from the FDA show complaints lodged by USADA which demonstrate that it was aware of its sale and use.
The peptide is banned by both USADA and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and various other organizations, including MLB. It is not banned by the NFL, though it could be considered a "related substance."
Requests for comment by email and phone to the media relations staff of USADA and the FDA were not returned by publication.
With the Olympics in full swing in Sochi, there's a chance that some of the athletes are doping. As yet, there have been no positive tests. Under the current system, though, it could take years before positive tests are announced.
The Olympics themselves are spending millions on tests, including building a lab, as they do for every Olympics. However, despite all this cost and the best efforts of many, MGF in any of its forms would not cause a positive test.
In fact, there's currently no evidence that there will be a test available for MGF in the near future.
While there is some preliminary work that indicates a test is theoretically possible, even research funded by WADA and others suggests this is years away—if then.
As with its closely related cousin, IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor), which was used by clients of Biogenesis such as Alex Rodriguez, there is no evidence that there is a research focus the way that there was for HGH. Dr. Christiane Ayotte, who runs the anti-doping lab in Montreal that is used by MLB and NFL, noted that there was a paper published in 2013 that points to one possible testing methodology.
For years, WADA worked to create a urine test and then a blood test for HGH (human growth hormone). It took years and millions of dollars, but the blood test that was created was less effective than one that had been available previously. That test, called a biomarker test, is now in use by WADA and in MLB.
It took WADA years to come up with an HGH test, so it would be hard to imagine that the agency developed an MGF test in less time and complete secrecy.
Previously, after the discovery of THG (tetrahydrogestrinone), the anabolic steroid at the heart of the BALCO case, drug authorities withheld that there was a second known steroid also created by Patrick Arnold called DMT (desoxymethyltestosterone). Authorities did not make it known that DMT was now detectable in hopes of trapping some competitors that had switched over from THG.
It is possible, though extremely unlikely, that they are hoping to catch users with an "unknown test" for MGF.
The PED now being used is a component of a hormone. MGF is the dominant isoform of IGF-1 and is created by the body naturally during overload exercise. What is being sold on the market is referred to as "Full Size MGF," which is also known as IGF-1Ec and is a peptide rather than a hormone. It occurs naturally in the body and the injectible form is chemically identical.
Peptides, including MGF, have been known to be available since at least 2006. This ThinkStetroids.com article shows that bodybuilders and personal trainers were experimenting with these drugs at least that long ago.
If so, why were WADA and USADA so surprised that it was being used in 2014?
In fact, if WADA is surprised at all by the abuse of MGF, it shouldn't be. The head of the Olympic testing program, Peter Van Eenoo, wrote a paper on the use of MGF in doping in 2012. That paper, titled "Characterization and identification of a C-terminal amidated mechano growth factor (MGF) analogue in black market products," was very explicit in the problems of testing and the peptide's efficacy.
USADA itself has warned all its member organizations that MGF was part of its banned substances list, alongside Vicks inhaler, since 2005.
It's a bit of a mixed message, to be sure. More notably, USADA helped fund Dr. Van Eenoo's research as part of a collective grant a year prior to his publication of the above research.
While there are no human clinical studies, anecdotal evidence—which amounts to bodybuilders using themselves as human guinea pigs—suggests that MGF has two interesting properties. First, it works very quickly. If injected after a workout, it can have an immediate effect. Rat studies have indicated a 20 percent increase in muscle mass, though human use suggests much less efficacy.
The other interesting property is that it works locally. The peptide has such a short half-life that it seldom gets much further in the body than the injection site. This means if you want to increase the size of your biceps, that's where you inject it. If you don't do both sides, there's going to be asymmetry.
Bodybuilders use it for "lagging" muscles, some which are smaller than the others prior to competition for whatever reason.
Athletes could do the same thing. While there is an increase in muscle mass, strength doesn't appear to ramp up as rapidly. There are some gains to be sure, but they aren't dramatic or instant. Still, short of genetic doping, the gains from MGF are some of the most dramatic, if not the most effective.
Imagine a drug that could build up the muscles around the thighs of a skier who was coming off a knee injury. Imagine being able to build up the thighs and calves a few days before the pushers on a bobsleigh team would head down the hill. Imagine a figure skater who needed just a little bit more lift to get that quadruple Salchow completed.
MGF is built for these kinds of situations.
Beyond the Olympics, it's easy to imagine a player trying to bulk up ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine. It's easy to imagine a kid knowing that scouts were coming and wanting a bit more power or size. The short-acting nature and undetectability make this a very tempting drug for many in a range of sports.
It appears that MGF is effective, available and cheap. Sites surveyed priced MGF at under $50 a vial, much less than the big dollars that Russia was looking for.
Much like with SARMs (selective androgen receptor modulators) a few years ago and peptides last year, we may be facing a new wave of PEDs. With no test available or on the horizon, we may soon be facing an epidemic of usage.
That could lead to the scariest part: discovering the side effects.
Will Carroll is the author of The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems.