In the 1500's, the New World was explored by European adventurers, who in their search for glory, treasure and the fountain of youth
were reckless when it came to their own safety. In much the same way, many bodybuilders and other athletes have explored unknown
and risky paths of drug use in an attempt to find either matchless power, the ultimate body or eternal youth. Ever since we entered
the steroid era, which began in the 1950's, we've seen modern-day adventurers anxious for a competitive edge use truly extravagant
amounts and combinations of anabolic/androgenic steroids.
In the late 1970's, a new anabolic substance - human growth hormone (HGH) - was "discovered" by those who were dissatisfied by the added strength and size they had acquired from their use of steroids. Thus began the era of HGH.
One of the most recent additions to the HGH era is insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). It's causing a major buzz in the sports community, particularly bodybuilding. Make no mistake: The medical and research communities are agog over the medical potential of IGF-1, and hundreds of papers and articles have been published on the subject, whetting the appetites of those on the lookout for a way to enhance their own physical development.
One of the reasons for the excitement is that IGF-1 is purported to be so potent, so capable of delivering on its extravagant reputation. Another reason is that no test has been developed that would allow sporting federations to catch someone who is using IGF-1. This last reason is increasingly important in light of the recent improvements in the testing procedures for anabolic/androgenic steroids. As these procedures are put into place in bodybuilding, competitors who want to lose as little muscle as possible as a tested contest approaches will become increasingly interested in finding a test-proof anabolic substance. Likewise, officials are just now becoming aware of the potential for the abuse of IGF-1.
Just as anabolic/androgenic steroids were developed to make weak people stronger, and then turned by strength seekers into a tool to make the strong stronger still, IGF-1 was developed through recombinant DNA technology to help in the treatment of various ailments and disorders, and is now being sought by the muscle- hungry as a means of adding a few pounds of lean mass while trimming a few pounds of fat.
A peptide, IGF-1 is constructed of a chain of 70 amino acids. Not unlike insulin, it can even bind to insulin receptors. Its role in normal growth and development is both similar and related to the role of HGH. Some researchers believe that as HGH is released, it triggers the production of IGF-1, which stimulates overall cell growth and division. Others hold the opinion that this growth and division can be much more localized and can occur in response to stress and particular need. IGF-1 is strongly lipolytic (i.e., fat burning), and its effectiveness in this area has excited scientists who are searching for ways to trim bodyfat without reducing lean mass from those 30% or so of U.S. citizens who are overweight.
Already, it's known that IGF-1 can enable HGH-deficient children to grow to a near-normal height. Similarly, we know that IGF-1 can assist hormone-deficient adults to maintain appropriate muscle-fat ratios.
What is much more controversial is the use of HGH or IGF-1 by normal adults who want to use the substances to combat aging. As we age, our bodies produce less HGH and IGF-1; thus, fountain of youth fantasists figure they can inject these products to compensate for when their bodies produce less of them. Sounds logical, but it's quite a bit more complicated than that.
At this time, there are a series of related studies underway in America examining these and similar questions connected to the issue of aging and hormonal replacement. Results should be published within the next 18 months. These research projects were stimulated at least in part by the phenomenal publicity surrounding the work of Daniel Rudman, a Milwaukee-based endocrinologist, who stated that adults in their 70s who took injections of HGH over a course of several months could dramatically add muscle mass while simultaneously reducing bodyfat - without exercising!
Rudman's research led to more research. Since his findings were made public, clinics have been opened by entrepreneurs in Mexico, Switzerland and even the United States, all seeking to fight Father Time with injections of "wonder drugs," HGH and IGF-1 chief among them. Such clinics are seen by traditional scientists as dangerously premature, but it seems likely that the next couple of decades will usher in an explosion of interest in the field of hormonal replacement as a strategy for turning back the hands of time.
The question on the minds of bodybuilders, however, is not how to fight the aging process, but how to appear even freakier through a combination of training, diet and anabolic / androgenic steroids. Whether IGF-1 really delivers depends on who you ask. An editor of a rival muscle magazine has said that the word on the street is that IGF-1 is "the most wonderful stuff in the world." The same magazine quoted an anonymous bodybuilder as saying, "I got ripped . . . this took it to a different level. Veins in my abs, that sort of thing."
The question, of course, is an old one: How can bodybuilders who might be stacking a frightening amount of other anabolic agents tell what's causing what effect and in what proportion? The answer is that they can't.
If you want trustworthy answers, you need to go to people like David Clemmons, a research endocrinologist at the University of North Carolina. Clemmons put four men and three women, ages 22 to 47, on diets so low in calories that they caused muscles and other tissues to break down. Then he administered to his subjects a combination of HGH and IGF-1 and found that this combination stopped the muscle loss. In fact, the subjects actually gained muscle mass and (naturally) lost fat. The implication of this research is that a combination of HGH and IGF-1 is both anabolic and lipolytic in adults.
On the other hand, studies involving rats suggest that although adult rats given IGF-1 do indeed grow and seem relatively immune from such wasting conditions as diabetes, the growth isn't confined to muscle tissue. In other wards, other tissues, such as those in the spleen and kidneys, also grow - not a happy prospect. Such studies also suggest that long-term use of IGF-1 could produce facial-nerve paralysis and even edema of the brain. In theory, extended use of IGF-1 could also extend the lives of damaged cells, thus increasing the risk of cancer. We also know that excess HGH can produce carpal tunnel syndrome, high blood-sugar levels and the disfiguring effects of acromegaly (seen in people like wrestler Andre the Giant and actor Richard Kiel, who portrayed the character Jaws in several James Bond films).
But these potential dangers haven't reduced demand for the drug. One of the fallouts of this intense interest is that the biotechnology companies that produce IGF-1 are having trouble keeping it out of the hands of bodybuilders and other athletes. One recently published account told of a lab technician who worked for a university in Canada. This technician was also a bodybuilder and decided to divert a bit of IGF-1 for himself. To do this, he produced a phony letterhead that made it appear he was the head of the university's biology department, then sent an order to GroPep (a wonderful name, don't you think?), an Australian manufacturer of the pep- tide. The manufacturer had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the letter and filled the order. The company hired to deliver the order, however, became suspicious since the technician had given his home address (which may explain why the technician was jut a technician and not the head of the biology department). In any case, the plot was foiled and the poor soul was apprehended.
Not all people who want IGF-1 for nonmedical reasons are as addle-brained as the technician. GroPep reports that it handles approximately five calls per day from athletes, mostly from the United States. Just over a year ago, 200 vials of a form of IGF-1 called "long R3 IGF-1" were sent by a U.S. manufacturer of GroPep to a source with connections to the bodybuilding community. Photos of GroPep have been published in various bodybuilding periodicals. All of this attention has alarmed the people from GroPep. As they say, though, where there's a will to pop it, there's no way to stop it, and it seems clear that IGF-1 is here to stay.
IGF-1 is so expensive at this point that the issue is almost hypothetical. One vial of IGF-1 purportedly costs $500-$600 on the black market, and it's been argued that it takes up to 10 such vials a day consumed over an extended period to stimulate a biological effect.
Unlike some anabolic/androgenic steroids, IGF-1 can be made in a garage lab, and if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that some people will find a way - legal or illegal, moral or immoral - to procure a supposedly magic pill or potion. Perhaps these days, as deaths and near deaths plague our historically healthy sport, we need to remember that as we search for that pharmaceutical pot of gold.