Nothing new about athletes trying IGF-1

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis smiles as he

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis smiles as he walks to the podium to answer questions from the media during Super Bowl XLVII media day at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. (Jan. 29, 2013) (Credit: Getty)

Now that IGF-1 has raised its head as yet another sought-after performance-enhancing substance for athletes, it reinforces the Whac-A-Mole aspect of the anti-doping efforts in sports.

IGF-1, it turns out, is neither a new drug nor a new addition to sports organizations' prohibited lists. Essentially, it functions as human growth hormone does -- burning fat, building muscle mass and stimulating the healing process.

But the marketing of IGF-1 by a company called Sports With Alternatives to Steroids, or S.W.A.T.S., appears to have convinced some high-profile athletes that IGF-1 is an easily obtained substitute for HGH and a detour around drug screening.

In the case of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis -- who denied reports that he used IGF-1 -- that would be true, since HGH and IGF-1 can be detected only with blood testing and the NFL has not yet implemented that procedure. (While Alex Rodriguez's name was tied to IGF-1 use this week -- Rodriguez also denied it -- baseball announced earlier this month that it will employ in-season blood testing for HGH.)

But baseball and the NFL have banned IGF-1, just as the World Anti-Doping Agency -- and virtually all sports organizations -- have.

Dr. Gary Wadler, the Manhasset-based expert on illegal substances who formerly was chairman of the WADA committee that determined prohibited substances, noted that the criteria for such action consists of "potential to enhance sport performance, actual or potential health risk" and "violation of the spirit of sport."

"Having a test for a substance is not one of the criteria," Wadler said. With IGF-1, which has legitimate use (in injectable form) for children with severe growth deficiencies, drug police long ago cited its interrelationship with HGH.

The IGF-1 being peddled by S.W.A.T.S. reportedly is in a spray form and obtained from the velvet in deer antlers, and may not be effective. But Terry Todd, the former weightlifter and steroid expert, cautioned that "these things are never taken in a controlled environment, and if I proposed a study here at the University of Texas, they would probably send the police over for just suggesting it."

Todd is director of the center for physical culture and sports in the university's department of kinesiology and has interviewed hundreds of steroid users over several decades in analyzing the subject.

The spray IGF-1 "could be one of those folk remedies, or one of the things that can have some effects," Todd said. Either way, to athletes looking for an edge, "if eating the bark or a certain type of tree that you could only find at midnight in Cuernavaca would help, people would be making tracks to Cuernavaca and lining up in the middle of the night at that tree.

"There are animal studies that demonstrate this isn't a psychological or placebo effect [with IGF-1]. But there is kind of a cowboy chemistry to these things. [Athletes] think, 'It probably won't kill me, it may help, and it could be a way around the testing.' "

If nothing else, the week's IGF-1 reports support a widespread presence of the doping mentality in sports. "It's sort of a magic," Todd said. "People believe what they want to believe: 'If a unicorn can carry me to victory, then . . . ' "

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