Deer antler spray wouldn't deliver banned substance, according to Hopkins doctor

Even if Ray Lewis did use deer antler spray his body would have never absorbed the banned substance its manufacturer says gives the product its potency, a Johns Hopkins professor said.

Sports Illustrated ran an article online Tuesday that connected the Ravens linebacker to S.W.A.T.S. — Sports with Alternatives to Steroids — a company that has marketed alternative health supplements and products to athletes (ThePostGame, which is led by Pikesville native David Katz and currently staffed by former Sun sports intern Robbie Levin, had the story two years ago). The story quotes S.W.A.T.S. co-founder Christopher Key telling a group of college football players that the company's deer velvet spray contains IGF-1, a hormone that has been banned by most major sports organizations including the NFL.

Dr. Roberto Salvatori, who runs a lab studying growth hormone deficiency and has been on the Hopkins faculty since 1998, said there is no scientifically accepted way to deliver IGF-1 orally.

"If there were, a lot of people would be happy that they don't need to get shots anymore," he said. "It's just simply not possible for it to come from a spray."

IGF-1, short for insulin-like growth factor, is used to treat a rare form of dwarfism known as Laron syndrome and in other cases where children fail to produce or process growth hormone.

It occurs naturally in the body and is actually produced as a result of the increased presence of human growth hormone, one of the performance enhancers allegedly used by cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Dozens of websites advertise deer antler spray or pills with claims of delivering IGF-1 and subsequent benefits like muscle growth and increased energy. But Dean Nieves of Florida-based Bio Lab Naturals said it is disingenuous to make such claims.

"IGF-1 is very unstable," said Nieves, whose company sells the spray under the Bio Protein Technology brand. "It could not exist outside of a very controlled environment. And when you order bottles of deer antler extract, it's not coming in a freeze-dried case."

Nieves, who studied nutrition, food and exercise science at Florida State, is the first to extol the virtues of deer velvet, a supplement that has been used in China for thousands of years. His company mentions IGF-1 prominently in its marketing material but only because it is integral to the yearly re-growth of antlers, he said. By the time the harvested antlers are broken down and processed to be sold the substance is essentially an uncomplicated, "super-concentrated" and natural protein.

"We registered our product with the FDA as a food product, it's that natural," Nieves said. "It is just packed with nutrients."

The extract is made by clipping still-growing antlers on deer or elk and then extracting those nutrients. Some companies say they grind the antlers, while others say they freeze dry or cook them.

Even if Key's claims about IGF-1 had any validity, the NFL's current testing policy would not force Lewis to be subjected to a blood test capable of detecting hormonal imbalances. NFL players are only required to submit to urine tests, for now.

The league and the players agreed to implement testing for HGH as part of the collectively-bargained labor agreement reached prior to last season, but the players' union has balked at setting up the program. Lawyers for the group have questioned the validity of the testing method and said that HGH is not a concern in the league.

Congressman Elijah Cummings, who represents part of Baltimore City and most of Howard County, co-authored a letter sent this week to the NFLPA that chastises the group for delaying the process and threatens to call players to D.C. to testify about the issue.

Of course, there are other reasons for concern when it comes to Lewis' alleged use of the product -- a team spokesman said he denied using it completely -- mainly that it could have contained something illegal that he didn't know about.

That's what former St. Louis Rams linebacker David Vobora claimed. From the SI article:

In June 2009, Vobora failed an offseason test for the steroid methyltestosterone and was suspended for four games. He then had the bottle of S.W.A.T.S. deer-antler spray (retail price: $64) tested. According to court documents filed by one of Vobora's lawyers, it tested positive for methyltestosterone. Vobora's lawyers sent a letter to Ross offering to not file a lawsuit if Ross paid Vobora $1 million. (One of Vobora's lawyers later claimed that Vobora only wanted an apology and for the spray to be removed from the market.)

When Ross did not reply, Vobora sued S.W.A.T.S. in May '10, alleging a lack of quality control that allowed the spray bottle to be contaminated. (The S.W.A.T.S. spray is manufactured by a third party and -- as is customary in the sports-supplement industry -- simply branded as unique with a S.W.A.T.S. label.) When Ross declined to hire a lawyer to represent S.W.A.T.S., Vobora, without a trial, was granted a default victory and a $5.4 million award. "Today, I've been proven innocent," Vobora said on June 20, 2011. Ross shuttered his business and reopened six months later under a different corporate name, a strategy he hopes will forestall collection.