Don Catlin, a thickly built, bespectacled man, eased into a chair in the second-floor conference room of Anti-Doping Research Inc., a lab housed in a modest, two-story building in Los Angeles. In March, he retired from his post at UCLA, where he'd run the Olympic Analytical Lab he founded before the 1984 Games and had emerged as one of the most prominent figures among anti-doping experts. At the non-profit lab, Catlin, 69, continues to chase who he occasionally refers to as "the bad guys."
He caught a swarm of them in 2003, when he cracked the code of a previously undetectable designer steroid known as THG or "the clear," which helped break open the BALCO doping scandal. The hunt continues and he's not alone.
With him, Catlin brought some of the world's top experts and former colleagues, such as Michael Sekera, a thin, graying man of 59 who sat next to Catlin in the second-floor conference room as they discussed what they described as one of their most challenging studies – the study of the supposedly powerful elixir, Laxogenin. With self-taught chemist Mark Thierman providing Yahoo! Sports with raw material he said he used to make the product, and Yahoo! Sports obtaining two samples of the product – one supplied by Yusem and the other coming from one of Yusem's friends – Catlin and his staff commenced a study.
Midway through lab analysis, Catlin said, he said he got "the sniffles." He sniffed twice for emphasis, as if detecting something fishy in the air.
"It doesn't smell right," he recalled thinking, and suspicion about Laxogenin and its contents grew.
But following a study that began in June, and was prolonged in part because samples of the product and the raw material arrived over the course of several weeks, Catlin and Sekera admitted they were somewhat disappointed, frustrated and perplexed. Catlin slid to the center of the oblong, wooden conference table an 8½-by-11 inch piece of paper.
It included a summary of what they found in two samples of the product being marketed as Laxogenin: no banned substances and no laxogenin. The only thing their analysis showed, diosgenin and diosgenin acetate, yet another plant-based substance that some supplement makers have advertised as anabolic even though there are no clinical studies to support those claims.
"We'd hoped to find something, and we're kind of disappointed we didn't," Catlin said. "And we keep pinching ourselves and, you know, could we have missed something? But we don't think so, and we think it is as we say."
Thierman said Catlin's lab should have used a simpler methodology, and that testing the melting point would have revealed the samples of Laxogenin were not diosgenin because the compounds melt at different temperatures. But Patrick Arnold, the chemist who discovered THG, said he has studied diosgenin and its derivatives and thinks the testing methodology Catlin's lab used was sufficient. He also disputes claims that Laxogenin, as described, has an anabolic effect.
"And anybody claiming they're really getting something for it, you really have to question the validity," Arnold said.
Catlin and Sekera talked about their findings.
"This has been difficult," Catlin said. "It remains difficult. It's not something that's just going to sort itself out. I think we've taken it as far as we know how to take it, under the present circumstances."
Catlin's lab conducted the analysis using mass spectrometry, a sophisticated technology which looks for particular pieces of a molecule's structure, Catlin said. The sum of the pieces determines the substance present.
Further study on the product samples could be done, but Catlin said his lab would have to outsource some of the work and the additional analysis would be costly. But the analysis performed left them with a theory.
"Michael thinks that because we all see diosgenin – that's the only thing we can definitively identify – that they got stuck," Catlin said. "They're trying to make laxogenin. They're trying to do a number of things. But the synthesis didn't (work)."
"That's a conclusion that I would be drawn to," he said. "The most specific thing is that you gave us what they think is laxogenin. We analyzed that and what we find is diosgenin and diosgenin acetate."
Diosgenin acetate, he explained, would be used to protect one side of the molecule while trying to synthesize the other side and convert it into something else.
"See, they're either starting from diosgenin or diosgenin acetate and they're trying to do other things to it, but it's not working," Sekera said. "So you end up with what you started with, which is the diosgenin and diosgenin acetate."
Diosgenin, when properly synthesized into other compounds such as testosterone, can be potent, Catlin said.
"Once you have (diosgenin), you're only two or three steps away from testosterone," he said. "That's the advantage of the semi-synthesis. You start with something and it's almost there. Nature made it for you. Then you do your semi-synthesis and you've got your final product.
"What I think is going on, at least in the mentality of some people, is they're hoping that diosgenin in the body is somehow or other converted into an active drug that can then enhance performance. That's my guess. Now I have no proof of that."
Sekera explained how unlikely such a conversion would be left up to one's body, pointing out that pharmaceutical companies which use diosgenin to make testosterone begin with a chemical step that takes place at 200 degrees.
"And that doesn't happen in the body," Catlin said with a grin.
Online, supplement makers sell products they say contain diosgenin and a derivative of diosgenin for as little as $29.95 for a one-month supply. Yusem sells a 30-day supply of Laxogenin for $150 retail, although last week he said he'd sell it to wholesalers for $20.
In the supplement industry, Catlin said, "It's how much sales you get and that has to do with how you market the product. …
"I can argue, if I felt like it, that this is nothing but a placebo, blank, nothing. (But) I've been around long enough. I have called things placebos and blanks 15 years ago only to learn that, whoops, I was really wrong."
Only an expensive and time-consuming clinical study of Laxogenin, Catlin and his colleague agreed, could confirm or refute the claims made by Tim Couch, Brian Yusem and Mark Thierman. As the quarterback continues his improbable comeback attempt, as the nutritionist seeks to make a fortune and as Thierman hopes to pay the bills and find personal redemption, Catlin considered the mysterious product once more and made a comment that seemed to summarize the whole story.
"It's an unfinished study," he said.