THE OLYMPIC DRUG STORE IS NOW OPEN

Fastest, strongest, fittest: the Olympic ideal remains undimmed. But what if that ideal was available for purchase from an East European clinic in the form of a bodybuilding drug that leaves no trace?

Words: Warren Pole

Photos: Ben Northover

(Live magazine, Mail on Sunday)


BUCHAREST’S OTOPENI AIRPORT is grey and drab. The scars left by the fierce fighting when Nicolae Ceausescu and communism were overthrown in 1989 have long since been replaced with the humdrum dressing of a modern airport. But there’s nothing remotely humdrum about my host, Eugen Dunca. He’s waiting for me in the arrivals hall. Or, more correctly, looming. Naturally tall and broad, his years as a professional bodybuilder bulge around his frame despite his competition days ending a decade ago. The only thing broader than his shoulders is his smile, and as one shovel-like palm shakes my hand another steers me to the door.


‘We have a surprise for you,’ he tells me through an enormous grin.



Leaving Bucharest airport by stretch Hummer with clinic owner Eugen Dunca


Communist austerity is fast disappearing in Romania but stretch Hummer limousines are still not exactly thick on the ground. Yet that’s what pulls up, flanked by a pair of pick-ups, with bullet-proof glass, and bodyguards.


‘Some clients prefer a taxi,’ Dunca explains as he offers me a chilled drink from the Hummer’s fridge. ‘But if they need a little more, like this, we can arrange that, too. I thought you might like it.’


What’s not to like? The Hummer has three well-stocked bars, a fireplace, a metal floor and a chrome ceiling decorated with Christmas lights.


The big man with his big smile and big car are almost too neat a metaphor for my visit. I’m here to get bigger myself – to secure a prescription for human growth hormone (HGH), which is what Dunca specialises in at his Royal Fit clinic, and which is the fastest-growing body booster in the world, loved by athletes from London to Beijing for its dream combo of high efficacy and invisibility.


Recombinant human growth hormone (rhGH) is the synthetic version of the hormone our bodies produce naturally to help the development of muscle, bone and cartilage. It is a hugely controversial business. It’s what Sylvester Stallone was caught with as he entered Australia – 48 vials of the stuff – when he visited last year. And Sly’s far from the only one in Hollywood favouring rhGH; it was just his run-in with customs that forced him to be the most open about it. Other big names bandied around the GH rumour mill include Nick Nolte, Goldie Hawn and 50 Cent. If the number of doctors claiming ‘celebrity patients’ is an indicator, then these are just the tip of the iceberg. Most of these users love it for its anti-ageing effects. As we get older, we produce less HGH. But enough studies have proven that bolstering falling levels in adults can have incredible effects. Body fat is burned, lean muscle mass is increased, and energy levels and libido are raised.


These discoveries are fast making rhGH the ultimate blow to that most insidious and incurable of afflictions – old age. More and more converts are flocking to the rhGH altar in search of the prescription for eternal youth. ‘It is everywhere in professional sport,’ says Dunca, ‘because there’s no danger of being caught.’


Indeed, not only does GH build strength and speed, it does so invisibly. No doping test can reliably detect its use. ‘Growth hormone has been around for 20 years in sport,’ says Sir Matthew Pinsent, the four-times Olympic gold medallist rower, who is now a BBC sports reporter. ‘The fact there still isn’t a good test for it tempts athletes to use it.’


But you can’t get it in Britain unless you can prove a rare deficiency of natural growth hormones. Which is why I am visiting the Royal Fit clinic the morning after my arrival in Bucharest, having rested in the hotel across the road and skipped breakfast as instructed.


The clinic advertises on the web, on Romanian television and in global luxury magazines. It’s an unassuming place, tucked behind an anonymous-looking black gate on a bustling Bucharest main street. I am buzzed in and go up to the first floor. Inside, it’s more city apartment than ice-white medical centre.


The staff at reception are smiling, petite and cute. Very much the public face of the business. Down a corridor I meet Dr Miclea Ciprian-Tiberiu, Royal Fit’s resident physician, and the only person in the clinic wearing a white coat. Always jovial, Dr Miclea was a chess champion at 16, by which time he had also written his first book on philosophy, though he tells me he was regarded as somewhat backward by his family.


At 34, my body has some definition to it, but I’m no world-class athlete. Dr Miclea thinks that, yes, I could still benefit from injecting growth hormone. ‘The best time to start taking growth hormone is in your thirties, when your natural levels start dropping,’ he explains.


   

If treatment is approved, growth hormone needs to be injected daily into the abdomen.

The clinic’s Dr Miclea talks me through the procedure


A two-day course of treatment costs £7,850, which includes extensive tests and a six-month supply of rhGH to be injected daily. The Hummer and 24-hour security are extras. But what about the side-effects? ‘With the doses we prescribe, probably none,’ says Dr Miclea. ‘With larger doses you can get swollen ankles, sore wrists and numb hands.’


I’m almost convinced, but there are alarm bells going off at the back of my mind. The problem is that not all growth hormone is good. Some black-market rhGH is simply ineffective, while pituitary HGH, extracted from dead bodies (originally the only source but banned from the NHS in 1985), is especially bad. It’s identical to the lab-produced stuff but can come packed with potentially fatal diseases, including CJD (the human form of mad-cow disease) and HIV. Then there is the risk of counterfeit drugs, which means your bottle might not contain what it says on the label. There are also numerous other documented medical risks associated with excessive use of GH, including swollen jawbones, abnormally large skulls, enlarged internal organs, distended stomachs and diabetes.


Introductions over, Dr Miclea leads me into the fitness-testing room. I’m about to undertake the most thorough medical MOT I’ve ever had.


It’s small and tidy inside. All the equipment is brand new, and there are enough machines in here to test up to three people at once. First, a Hannibal Lecter-style mask is put over my face to measure my metabolic rate as I’m instructed to do no more than sit back and relax. It’s high, which figures. I’m skinny yet I eat what I like. Then comes the fitness test. Another mask goes on, but this time I’m on an exercise bike. The only distraction is Romanian MTV on a flatscreen in the corner. I’m instructed to pedal, which I do until my legs are like jelly and I’m ready to hurl the limited contents of my stomach into the bin.


After a brief confusion where the machine tells us I have the superhuman fitness of an international athlete, Dr Miclea realises his assistant has told the machine I am female. A quick recalibration switches me back to my correct gender and we learn I am, in fact, slightly above average.


My breath back, it’s now blood-test time. There are 45 of them in all. Screening for pretty much everything is vital, most importantly tumours. There is a risk that rhGH treatment can accelerate tumour growth. So that’s testicular, prostate, thyroid and skin cancer covered, as well as many others. They also measure my natural GH and testosterone levels. Although the blood tests should spot any abnormal growths, a CT scan and an MRI scan make sure nothing is missed (the MRI machine makes a racket like a bad German techno party).


While waiting for my results, I join Dunca in his office with its stained-glass windows and vast, ornate wooden table. ‘I first heard about GH ten years ago,’ he says. ‘I’d stopped bodybuilding competitively but was still training. I was intrigued, but it was too expensive. Now, with more companies making it, especially in China, it’s more affordable. Setting up this clinic is a good business but it’s also special because we can change people’s lives.’

And does he take it himself? ‘Of course. I wouldn’t recommend anyone do something I wouldn’t. I’ve been taking it for years. My mother takes it, and so does my girlfriend. People may be concerned about injecting themselves but, although rhGH is artificial, it’s the same as the GH produced by your own body so it’s not foreign. In many ways it’s safer than aspirin.’


Remembering the parallel drug market and the rumours of pituitary GH still circulating, I ask what are the chances that anything other than genuine Pfizer Genotropin (which Royal Fit prescribes) could be in the bottles he supplies. ‘There is no chance at all. We buy directly from Pfizer’s Romanian distributor who receives it directly from Pfizer in the UK. It arrives fully sealed.’


I suggest that the idea of coming to Romania for what is still a fairly unknown treatment in Europe may be off-putting.


‘Unfortunately, my country does not have such a great reputation in many ways, but we are working hard to change that. We can offer a more personal treatment than other clinics because we’re smaller, and being in Romania means we’re cheaper. If people want to come here, my message is “welcome”.’ He spreads his heavy arms wide and that huge grin is back on his face.


Dr Miclea comes back with my test results. The blood tests and scans show no abnormalities or tumours; my HGH levels are slightly low. I’m clear for treatment, and moments later the elusive prescription for rhGH is in my hands. All I need to do now is decide whether or not to take it.


The only legal way to obtain a prescription in the UK is with a severe growth disorder. The drugs companies are not licensed for any other use. Wanting to ‘look a bit better’ won’t cut it with your GP, which leaves several options for buying it:


1. The black market. But do you really want to buy intravenous drugs from a bloke in a pub car park?

2. The internet. There are almost as many sites selling growth hormone as porn, a sure indication of demand. But most are selling it in pill or spray form and, as growth hormone only works when injected (stomach acid dissolves it), these are useless. For the injectable version you need to be sure of your source.

3. An anti-ageing clinic. Those in the UK deal in herbs, nutrition plans, Botox and so on, which is how I come to find myself in Bucharest. Here, the Romanians have a more ‘liberal’ interpretation of prescriptive need, which is handy if you are an athlete who has to keep up with the pack.


Enough sporting stars have come clean about rhGH use to hint at a major problem. It was part of the cocktail supplied to British sprinter Dwain Chambers before he was banned for two years in 2003 after testing positive for steroids; American footballer Rodney Harrison and Major League baseball player Jason Grimsley have both recently admitted using it.


‘The use of rhGH is becoming far more widespread now,’ says Professor Peter Sonksen, one of the world’s leading authorities on growth hormone. ‘In America, the market for it is already massive and growing at a phenomenal rate. Athletes are certainly using it, knowing that 24 hours after they last injected they can submit themselves to a test and it will be negative.


‘The evidence is that abuse is widespread in sport and has been for a very long time. In Sweden, there were even cases where mothers sold growth hormone they’d been given for their children to athletes.’


My own introduction to human growth hormone came while I was covering the 2006 Mr Olympia bodybuilding world championship in Las Vegas. There, I learned drug use was the norm as the human body simply cannot reach the freaky size of bodybuilding’s top players – unless serious chemicals are used alongside equally serious training. But, in bodybuilding, drug use is accepted. It’s not condoned but it’s not tested for either. When the benefits of injecting growth hormone began surfacing, bodybuilding picked up the needle before anyone else.


Before leaving for Bucharest, I had visited a spartan South London gym, where I met a 35-year-old bodybuilder willing to talk about his rhGH use (but not reveal his name).


‘I use as much as I can afford,’ he told me. ‘Ten years ago I only used it before shows, but now that it’s cheaper I stay on it all year round. At the level I compete, everyone’s taking it.’


It became clear as we talked that he had done a lot of painstaking research on this subject.


‘You have to study it, you’ve got to know what you’re taking.’ A smart move when your supply is from the black market with all the ‘buyer beware’ connotations that carries. I ask if he’s ever had any side-effects.


‘When I upped my dose, my stomach started to bulge as my organs swelled. I slowed down my intake and it went back down gradually.’


Just like any commercial medicine, growth hormone represents good money for the counterfeiters, and in the same way fake Gucci bags and Rolexes get better every year, so fake drugs have improved to the point where even the experts now struggle to tell them apart. How do you tell good from bad? Bodybuilders recommend using pregnancy kits. Fake stuff shows up as ‘pregnant’ apparently.


Or you could visit one of a number of websites allowing those on the black market to check the serial numbers of their latest batch of rhGH. These require a certain leap of faith – it wouldn’t take the sharpest counterfeiter to set up a site conveniently confirming his fake GH as the real deal. And there have been cases of counterfeit growth hormone turning up bearing genuine serial numbers.


So, you take your chances or shell out for an independent laboratory test on every batch you buy.


Not everyone agrees about how good rhGH is. Professor John Monson, consultant physician at the London Clinic Centre for Endocrinology, says that there is no evidence growth hormone prevents ageing or improves body composition.


‘If you have a genuine HGH deficiency, taking it will produce improved mood, libido, energy levels and so on. But that’s only because deficiency made you lower than normal in these beforehand.’


Professor Peter Sonksen disagrees strongly. He has been at the forefront of GH research for more than 30 years and is now emeritus professor of endocrinology at King’s College London and St Thomas’ Hospital, as well as visiting professor of endocrinology at the University of Southampton School of Medicine. Since a skiing accident five years ago, he also takes it himself.


   

Professor Peter Sonksen, one of the world’s foremost GH research pioneers takes the drug

himself since being paralysed in a skiing accident


‘I lay in the snow face down and couldn’t move. I’d skied over an unmarked ten-foot drop and was completely paralysed,’ Sonksen tells me in the comfortable kitchen at his house, while Lara, his assistance dog, dozes at his feet.


‘There I was, two days after Christmas, paralysed in a hospital bed thinking, “What can I do?” I knew growth hormone would promote cell survival while preventing cell death, giving my spinal cord the best chance of improvement. I’ve been taking it ever since.


‘My prognosis after the accident was I’d never get my hands back but now I can use them both. I can type, I can use a knife and fork. They’re not normal, but they’re jolly useful. And I can walk, which I was told I would be lucky to do at all. Not far and not fast, but I can do it.’


Produced in the pituitary gland at the base of the brain, human growth hormone was first administered in 1958, and then only used for children with growth problems as it was in short supply.


‘Back then we could only extract growth hormone from dead bodies,’ explains Sonksen. ‘The NHS paid post-mortem departments £1 per pituitary gland. Each department had a jar they filled up. Once full it went to a central lab where they literally put the pituitaries in a blender and extracted the GH.’


But by the mid-Eighties, CJD was being seen in a disproportionate number of adults treated with pituitary GH as children. The NHS never used genuine human GH again. By the late Eighties, laboratory-produced GH was on the market and studies began on adults with growth hormone deficiency. Results were remarkable. All felt better, more energised, stronger, happier and lost body fat. It didn’t take long for someone to wonder if regular folk could benefit.


In sport, people have been aware of its benefits for some time. In 1981, a book called The Original Underground Steroid Handbook explained how anabolic steroids increased muscle bulk and strength but didn’t do so for tendons. The result was very powerful muscles which then ripped your tendons off the bone. But with rhGH, tendon and bone growth are stimulated, too, reducing the risk of injury and allowing harder training, more strength and better performance.


So how prevalent is its use in competition today? Thanks to the difficulty of testing, no one has yet been caught, so nobody really knows. But one story Sonksen tells me adds fuel to the fire. Six months before the Sydney Olympics in 2000, a pharmaceutical wholesaler in the city was raided. The only thing stolen? Human growth hormone. Estimates put the amount taken at enough to dope the whole Australian Olympic team for six months. No one was ever caught for the robbery or for selling the GH, let alone taking it, and there are no facts to suggest the Australian team were in any way involved. But the robbery happened, and the GH was never found.


Back in the UK and drawing this piece to a close my prescribed rhGH and needle pen sit as yet unused in my fridge. A bit of free muscle would be nice and with a major international endurance running event coming up next year it wouldn’t be a bad thing for me either, but as a fit and healthy 30-something bloke, spiking myself in the stomach with growth hormone several times a week just seems a bit over the top. So, for now at least, the needle remains in its case, although having followed the GH trail this far, how long my curiosity will let it stay there is another matter.

 

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