'Fountain of youth in a bottle'

Drugs used to treat AIDS patients are being diverted onto a black market that serves professional athletes.

Updated: December 3, 2004, 1:46 PM ET
By Tom Farrey | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- On a lazy morning in the Castro District of downtown, two middle-aged men with shaved heads lean on the front counter at the local Gold's Gym, talking 'roids.

Serostim
Serostim, a human growth hormone used to treat AIDS patients, has become a hot commodity on the black market.
"I took testosterone," says one man, who works there. "Hated it. Made me too pumped up."

The other man, in sweats, laughs just a little. "Oh, that's the least powerful stuff you can take." He explains that he has grown far more muscular using human growth hormone.

They talk freely about their use of anabolic steroids and HGH because the men are among a group legally permitted to use such muscle-building pharmaceuticals. They have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, so doctors can prescribe the drugs to keep their bodies strong.

Is there a connection between pro athletes, steroids and the HIV community?
• OTL in ESPN Motion ESPN Motion
But substances intended for those in the AIDS community aren't just being used to save lives. Official documents submitted in the ongoing BALCO doping investigation suggest the drugs might have been diverted onto a black market that serves professional athletes, who use them to hit home runs or sack quarterbacks.

Last year, when federal and county investigators raided the Bay Area home of Greg Anderson, best known as Barry Bonds' personal trainer, they found syringes, anabolic steroids and vials of Serostim. In 1996, Serostim became the first synthetic human growth hormone approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of "wasting," the involuntary loss of lean body mass among HIV and AIDS patients.

Steve Kelly
Steve Kelly, a personal trainer in San Francisco, says "It's fairly reprehensible that somebody would be preying on a compromised part of the population to feed some million-dollar athlete."
Anderson allegedly told investigators on the day of the raid that he received testosterone and human growth hormone from "AIDS patients in San Francisco who have prescriptions for them." He explained that he was "hooked up" with the drugs from random suppliers.

The statements are contained in a report written and signed by agents for the Internal Revenue Service and San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force shortly after the Sept. 3, 2003 raid on Anderson's house. Anna Ling, one of Anderson's attorneys, claims the memo contains fabrications by investigators, but declined to address whether Anderson has acquired drugs from the AIDS community.

"There's a huge market for it [AIDS drugs], so it's an easy money-maker," says James Johnson, owner of the Max Muscle sports supplement shop located across the street from Gold's Gym. "In fact, I probably have customers once a week ask me if I can find it for them."

Steve Kelly, a personal trainer who often works out of a Gold's Gym in San Francisco, estimates that a quarter of his clients are HIV-positive. While he is unaware of anyone who has sold the drugs to bodybuilders, athletes or trainers, he says he can understand why some people would trade their prescriptions for a wad of cash.

"They might have lost their job," he says. "The money might not be there, and they might be on welfare. I can see where the temptation would be if someone dangles a couple hundred dollars in front of them to give up half of their prescription for a month."

A monthly supply of Serostim runs more than $6,000. States such as California often pick up the costs of the prescription for those who qualify for assistance.

"It's fairly reprehensible that somebody would be preying on a compromised part of the population to feed some million-dollar athlete," Kelly says. "There's probably a special place in hell for somebody like that."

Greg Anderson
Greg Anderson is one of three people facing federal charges in BALCO drug scandal that has engulfed sports.
According to investigators, Anderson told them he had given human growth hormone to former San Francisco Giants players Benito Santiago, Armando Rios and Bobby Estalella. They were among what investigators said Anderson called his "little guys," apparently describing clients of lesser notoriety than his boyhood friend Bonds, whose late-career home run surge has placed him within striking distance of baseball's all-time record.

The question of whether Bonds received human growth hormone and testosterone is not addressed in the report.

The attorney for Rios and the agent for Estalella declined comment when reached by ESPN.com. The agent for Santiago did not respond to requests for comment.

Bonds has long denied using performance-enhancing drugs, though his name is often mentioned in the same breath with BALCO, the Bay Area lab at the center of what is becoming one of the biggest drug scandals in sports history.

On Wednesday in San Francisco, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston denied a defense motion to dismiss the case. Anderson and two BALCO executives, founder Victor Conte and vice president James Valente, are among those indicted by a grand jury on charges including drug distribution and money laundering. Each has pleaded not guilty.

Human growth hormone has been used by bodybuilders and athletes since the early 1980s when the only way to acquire it was by grinding up the pituitary glands of human cadavers. HGH, however, was linked to a variant of mad cow disease, which resulted in dementia and death among a statistically significant segment of its users. Its popularity and potential medical applications grew after a genetically engineered form of the hormone was created in 1985.

Athletes often use human growth hormone in tandem with steroids, says Dr. Gary Wadler, who helped the World Anti-Doping Agency determine its list of banned substances.

"Growth hormone causes not only growth of muscle but growth of everything in the body," he says. "Athletes determined to cheat will mix steroids and growth hormones [on the notion] that if the growth hormone makes the muscles bigger, then steroids will make the bigger muscles stronger."

Colin Kelly, a 48-year-old amateur bodybuilder from Hermosa Beach, Calif., says he uses Serostim to help him bulk up his physique. He says he gets the drug from middlemen in the black-market pipeline who buy it from AIDS patients.

"Remember when you were 20 years old and could eat ice cream and cake and stuff, and you never gained any fat? This is what it will do for you," he says. "You can eat all that stuff again. It picks up your metabolism a lot, so you take the stuff and you gain muscle mass and lose body fat without even working out at all. It's incredible.

"It's the fountain of youth in a bottle, so who wouldn't want that?"

Two years ago, West Hollywood (Calif.) mayor John Duran rapidly lost 60 pounds, mostly muscle, because of wasting. Serostim, he says, helped him to get his weight back up to 185 pounds.

"I know when my weight was severely reduced, I would walk out on the public streets and people would give me that look, like, 'Oh my god, is he going to die?' " Duran says. "I don't have to face that look anymore. I get to go to my gym four days a week. I get to get on my spinning bicycle at the gym and do my cardio. I get to participate in regular activities."

Victor Conte
Victor Conte, the founder of BALCO, is at the center of the biggest drug scandal in sports history.
Besides Anderson, Conte and Valente also have been indicted specifically for possessing and intending to distribute human growth hormone for unauthorized purposes. Investigators say they found vials of the drug in the trash at BALCO, and that Valente told them on the day of the raid -- the same day Anderson's house was searched -- that Conte distributed human growth hormone to unnamed professional athletes.

Publicly, Conte has only said he knows athletes who use the substance, but has not supplied it to them. In requesting a search warrant for the BALCO offices, the government cited a 1998 quote from Conte in Testosterone magazine: "I don't condone the use of anabolic steroids or growth hormone. However, I know a number of athletes who use growth hormone, and most of them are reporting tremendous benefits. A few NFL players who have been caught using anabolic steroids have switched to using growth hormone by itself. Some of the older players in their mid-30s are also using growth hormone."

Fraud related to black-market sales of Serostim to bodybuilders has prompted the state of California to enact stricter controls on the distribution of the drug. Along with a doctor's prescription, people with HIV also must get prior approval from the state. Now that Serostim has been linked to Anderson and the BALCO case, some people with HIV fear that further restrictions will be placed on the drug.

"Most good drugs are subject to abuse so I can understand why people would want it -- because it has the same effect as a steroid," Duran said. "I just hope that some of those abuses don't result in people like me, who really need the drug, being denied access."

Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn3.com.

ESPN producer Nicole Noren contributed to this report. She can be reached at nicole.k.noren@espn.com.

Tom Farrey | email

Writer, Reporter

ALSO SEE