By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006
An Illinois chemist awaiting sentencing for his role in the biggest steroid scandal in U.S. history has for months been involved in marketing a dietary supplement containing a little-known amphetamine-like substance that would be undetectable in current sports drug tests, according to an analysis of the product for The Post.
Patrick Arnold, who in a recent plea deal admitted providing steroids to the drug ring that ensnared Barry Bonds and a number of other famous athletes, runs a company that has been selling the amphetamine-like compound over the Internet in a dietary supplement that describes the substance with the invented trademark name Geranamine.
It is illegal to sell dietary supplements without listing the ingredients by their common or usual names, according to Robert Moore, the Food and Drug Administration's Team Leader in the Division of Dietary Supplement Programs.
The product, Ergopharm's Ergolean AMP, contains an obscure substance that was patented in 1944 and considered for use as an inhalant for nasal decongestion by Eli Lilly and Company. It is known as methylhexaneamine, according to Don Catlin, a noted researcher who analyzed the product and was reimbursed for the work by The Post.
"The chemical structure is similar to amphetamines and ephedrine," said Catlin, whose Los Angeles laboratory provides drug testing for Olympic sports, minor league baseball, the NFL and NCAA. "In this class of drugs, everything depends on the dose. Take enough of it and your heart rate and blood pressure will go up and you can die."
Amphetamines are illegal without a prescription. An official at one of Arnold's companies told The Post the substance was legal because it could be found in nature. Ephedrine, also found in nature, was banned from the dietary supplement market after Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler in 2003 died after using it.
Stimulants have been abused by athletes for decades and were considered mainstays in Major League Baseball clubhouses, many players have said publicly, before baseball began a drug testing program in 2004. Because methylhexaneamine would not show up in standard drug screens -- though that will quickly change as soon as Catlin's discovery is publicized -- it could offer athletes in sports that test for stimulants such as ephedrine and amphetamines an alternative that would not produce a positive test.
Athletes have shown they are desperate for such shortcuts. A number of top track and field athletes, including burgeoning superstar Kelli White, were found in 2003 to be using modafinil, which is a prescription drug used to treat narcolepsy that also is in the amphetamines class. After testing positive for the drug under a strict testing code unique to France, White was forced to relinquish her 2003 world championship medals in the 100 and 200 meters. The drug later was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Companies that wish to market ingredients that have never before been sold in dietary supplements are required to notify the FDA before doing so and to provide information about the product's safety. The FDA has received no notification about methylhexaneamine from Ergopharm, an FDA spokesperson said. Companies are only exempted from this pre-market notification if the ingredient was marketed in a supplement before 1994 or has a history of use in the food supply.
AMP's label states that the product is a "proprietary blend" of Geranamine, theobroma cacau seed and caffeine. Geranamine has no scientific meaning, Catlin said. The trademark was applied for in January 2005 and is held by Proviant, Ergopharm's parent company. According to the trademark registration, Geranamine is a "constituent of flower oil sold as an integral component of nutritional supplements."
In response to an e-mail query directed to Arnold about methylhexaneamine's presence in AMP and the product's legality, Matthew Daniel, a research and development chemist at Proviant, said Geranamine was found in nature and therefore legal to market in a dietary supplement. He included a reference line to a Chinese research paper.
"Geranamine was found to be in geranium oil that was extracted from geranium plants," Daniel wrote in his only e-mail response. "It is a naturally occuring [sic] compound."
So is ephedrine. Though it is legal to sell naturally occurring compounds in dietary supplements and ephedrine is found in plants, the FDA determined in 2001 that ephedrine produced synthetically could not be considered a legal dietary ingredient.
Daniel and Arnold did not respond to questions as to why methylhexaneamine was not specifically mentioned on the label. They also did not respond to a query about whether they notified the FDA before marketing the product or whether the methylhexaneamine was produced synthetically. The Post sent several e-mails to and left telephone messages with both.
Arnold's sales of the product provide further evidence of the difficulty of lawmakers' and sports officials' attempts to crack down on performance-enhancing drugs in sports. It also highlights the grave problems plaguing the dietary supplement industry since a 1994 act that was intended to make herbal remedies and vitamin products more readily available left the industry virtually unregulated.
The Post reported last fall that six designer steroids were being sold in dietary supplements. Several of the manufacturers discontinued the products, and the FDA issued several warning letters. The FDA oversees the industry, but it does not examine products before they go to market unless companies submit requests to market new dietary ingredients.
Methylhexaneamine is reminiscent of the first steroid Arnold admitted designing for the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (Balco), which federal authorities said provided performance-enhancing drugs to professional athletes in football, baseball and track and field. That steroid, known as norbolethone, also had been the subject of decades-old research, but when the research was abandoned, the substance effectively was forgotten. Because of its obscurity, it wasn't specifically banned when steroids were outlawed in the United States in 1990. Before the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Arnold resurrected it and distributed it secretly to athletes. Once federal authorities became aware of it, it was made illegal.
Arnold claims on the Ergopharm Web site that AMP gives dieters and athletes an alternative to ephedrine with fewer negative side effects. AMP has "adrenaline properties" and is "the most powerful weight tool you can purchase without a prescription," Arnold says on the site.
Ergopharm is a division of Proviant Technologies Inc., in Champaign, Ill., which manufactures bulk nutraceutical ingredients and provides contract manufacturing services, according to Ergopharm's Web site. Arnold, the founder of Ergopharm, is a vice president at Proviant. When reached by phone, Proviant's owner, Ramlakhan Boodram, declined an interview request.
The Post obtained a copy of the Chinese paper Daniel cited to defend the company's claim that Geranamine was a natural substance. The paper, which came from an engineering institute in Guiyang, China, claims that there are more than 40 constituents of geranium oil, and that methylhexaneamine is one of them, making up less than 1 percent of the substance (0.66 percent).
Besides the Chinese research paper, The Post could find no other modern research on methylhexaneamine. It was studied in the 1940s and 1950s. Catlin could not find any research indicating oral administration in humans. It is unclear whether the substance is toxic, addictive or has other harmful side effects. The 1944 patent states that methylhexaneamine has fewer side effects than amphetamines and ephedrine, but the FDA has not evaluated it.
"This stuff ought not be out there," Catlin said. "It's dangerous material."