Growing concerns of black market peptides

13 June 2019

Potential doping products often become available to athletes via internet sites with little evidence available as to their action within humans.

In recent times peptide hormones have become much more readily available and these pose concerns, not just for the anti-doping movement but also for the health of the athlete.

Over recent years, there has also been a growing interest in peptide supplements by people seeking a healthier or longer life. The increasing ease of availability of these substances through supposedly legitimate ‘supplement’ retailers (both store-front and online) is a major concern both from an anti-doping and a public health perspective.

The Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory (ASDTL) surveyed a range of more than 200 products, suspected of containing peptide hormones, growth factors, and related substances. Alarmingly, 63 of these products were easily purchased online, while the remaining 155 sets of samples were from products seized by the Australian Border Force.

Of these samples only 25 per cent contained the peptide as described on the label, 25 per cent were unlabelled (75 per cent of the unlabelled supplements contained a peptide), 25 per cent were incorrectly labelled, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the remaining 25 per cent did not contain any peptide at all.

The failure to deliver the supplement a customer has paid for is not the only possible negative outcome. Poor and unsanitary manufacturing processes pose a risk of infection and mislabelled products could even prove deadly. This is illustrated by one of the products analysed by ASDTL. The product was labelled as containing Serotropin, a form of human growth hormone, but instead the product contained porcine insulin. The most common side effect of insulin is hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, producing symptoms including headache, hunger, weakness, sweating, tremors, irritability, trouble concentrating, rapid breathing, fast heartbeat, fainting, or seizure. Severe hypoglycemia can be fatal.

Eighty per cent of the products did contain a peptide which would support the release of human growth hormone, notably growth hormone releasing peptides (GHRPs). Long-term studies in the use of GHRPs have not been performed as the majority available on the internet have not been approved for human use. However, given that these peptides are used to release growth hormone, excessive amounts in healthy people may cause side effects like those observed in people with acromegaly, such as cardiovascular disease states.

Understandably, there is growing concern about the use of peptide supplements amongst regulators. In 2018 the Therapeutic Goods Administration launched legal action against Peptide Clinics Australia in the Australian Federal Court for misleading marketing concerning the safety of some of their peptide products. The Federal Court hearing is scheduled for 24 June 2019.

One of the peptide drugs sold by peptide clinics is melatonin II, also known as the controversial ‘barbie drug’, which is administered by injection and used to artificially tan skin. This drug is commonly used by bodybuilders and is not approved for use in Australia. Its use is linked to a number of health concerns including back, liver and kidney pain, as well as the acceleration of cancer.

The take away message for consumers seeking a healthier or longer life, and for athletes looking for an edge, is that you just don’t know what it is you are buying when you purchase these types of products, and you cannot predict the effect these products will have on your health.