Jeff Johnson, owner of Flex Gym & Fitness Center in Ottawa, Illinois trains with members on April 11, 2013. Jeff Johnson has been in the bodybuilding world for three decades. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

In addition to GW501516, dubbed "exercise in a bottle" for its ability to mimic the effects of physical activity on the body, athletes also use compounds called selective androgen receptor modulators, or SARMS, intended to treat conditions such as muscle wasting and osteoporosis.

"These are also still in clinical trials or have been discontinued due to undesirable effects, but they are still detected in doping control samples," said Mario Thevis, editor in chief of the journal Drug Testing & Analysis and a professor at the Center for Preventive Doping Research at the German Sport University at Cologne.

Aromatase inhibitors, a class of drugs under investigation for the drugs' ability to reduce estrogen synthesis, are also sold as research chemicals. Some are approved for human use and used to treat breast cancer, but many are still in clinical trials. The drugs are popular among athletes who take steroids because they prevent elevated levels of testosterone from being converted to estrogen, thus reducing potential side effects of the steroids, including male breast enlargement, acne and water retention.

Jeff Johnson, a bodybuilding promoter who owns Flex Gym and Fitness Center in Ottawa, Ill., said the products' safety is a concern because when drugs are bought over the Internet, it's impossible to know what's really in the bottle. But he has no doubt that some are effective.

"It's a tightknit community; if something works, they pass it on," said Johnson, a former competitor who stressed that he doesn't advocate drug use. "Part of the bodybuilding mentality is 'more is better.' They'll try anything that enhances performance and adjust the dosage. Bodybuilders are guinea pigs."

The websites that sell the compounds often cite fragments of scientific studies and toxicology reports; many also often contain misleading or incorrect information.

The Tribune bought a vial labeled GW501516 from Osta-Gain for $69.98. The label included a disclaimer: "For Research Purposes Only. Not For Human Consumption." The Osta-Gain site states that the drug is "being investigated for drug use by GlaxoSmithKline" and adds that the "increase in endurance, muscle fiber performance, fat loss and metabolism suggests it has the potential for ergogenic use and abuse."

Kentucky attorney J. Clark Baird, who represents Osta-Gain and several other companies that sell research chemicals on the Internet, noted that customers who buy research chemicals through Osta-Gain must, prior to ordering, sign an electronic disclaimer that specifically states human consumption is illegal.

Baird acknowledged that some experimental products might be diverted for human use despite the warnings. But a consumer's misuse of the product "doesn't mean it's the fault of the manufacturer," he said.

Baird said he counsels his clients not to advertise on bodybuilding boards. "At the end of the day, all they can do is sell products that aren't illegal, sell them in a responsible way and make sure purchasers are aware of the limitations on the product," he said.

Collins, however, said warnings aren't necessarily enough to protect a distributor.

"The government can view it as a trick or a cover," he said.

Adam Higdon of Palatine faces federal charges, including mail fraud and misbranding of drugs, after he falsely represented on his websites that he was selling substances "for research use only … not for human consumption," according to a indictment announced this month. In emails to customers, Higdon is accused of describing the benefits of his products for burning fat and tanning in preparation for bodybuilding shows.

Attempts to reach Higdon for comment were unsuccessful.

In January, Nevada's Chandan Manansingh pleaded guilty to "introducing a misbranded drug into interstate commerce." He was accused of repackaging, relabeling and reselling nonapproved experimental drugs to consumers who injected themselves with the products. Though the website had numerous disclaimers stating the drugs were for research only, "Manansingh knowingly used these disclaimers as a ruse to avoid FDA scrutiny," according to court documents.

Manansingh advertised his website and products extensively in bodybuilding magazines and sold his products to bodybuilders for their personal use, according to the plea agreement. He also advised his customers — including an undercover federal agent — via email and telephone "on how to self-administer the drugs, including recommended dosages and placement of the injections to best produce the desired bodily enhancements," documents state.

Manansingh's attorney, Andrew Ira Alperstein, declined to comment as the sentencing is pending.

GlaxoSmithKline originally began developing GW501516 in 2005 as a way to treat high cholesterol associated with metabolic syndrome. When safety studies found it caused multiple types of cancer in mice and rats, the company pulled the plug in 2006 and reported its findings to regulatory authorities and at a scientific meeting.

"We don't have a patent for GW501516 and can't control what is sold on the Internet," said Williams, leader of the drugmaker's anti-doping initiative. "We just have to be vigilant in working with (the World Anti-Doping Agency) and getting the message out that there are dangers in taking these chemicals that have not been approved for use."

The drug's long-term effects are unknown because the initial human trials were limited and involved small numbers of patients, according to information the company gives to physicians who ask about it.

"It's not a great compound," said Ronald Evans, a professor and director of the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. His research showed GW501516 may boost endurance and had the potential to be abused by athletes.

"It has a certain toxicity; it tends to accumulate and doesn't metabolize well," Evans said. "It can crystallize when it gets to be concentrated in such high levels."

But in some circles, the long-term effects are secondary issues. On a recent thread on, users discussed how to improve the taste of GW501516 for their lab rats. A user weighed in with the final word: "Who gives a (expletive) if it doesn't taste like candy? My rats and I agree. Results > taste."

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