Doping with growth hormone/IGF-1, anabolic steroids or erythropoietin: is there a cancer risk?

Pharmacol Res. 2007 May;55(5):359-69. doi: 10.1016/j.phrs.2007.01.020. Epub 2007 Feb 3.


Anabolic steroid and peptide hormones or growth factors are utilized to increase the performance of athletes of professional or amateur sports. Despite their well-documented adverse effects, the use of some of these agents has significantly grown and has been extended also to non-athletes with the aim to improve appearance or to counteract ageing. Pre-clinical studies and epidemiological observations in patients with an excess of hormone production or in patients chronically treated with hormones/growth factors for various pathologies have warned about the potential risk of cancer development and progression which may be also associated to the use of certain doping agents. Anabolic steroids have been described to provoke liver tumours; growth hormone or high levels of its mediator insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) have been associated with colon, breast, and prostate cancers. Actually, IGF-1 promotes cell cycle progression and inhibits apoptosis either by triggering other growth factors or by interacting with pathways which have an established role in carcinogenesis and cancer promotion. More recently, the finding that erythropoietin (Epo) may promote angiogenesis and inhibit apoptosis or modulate chemo- or radiosensitivity in cancer cells expressing the Epo receptor, raised the concern that the use of recombinant Epo to increase tissue oxygenation might favour tumour survival and aggressiveness. Cancer risk associated to doping might be higher than that of patients using hormones/growth factors as replacement therapy, since enormous doses are taken by the athletes often for a long period of time. Moreover, these substances are often used in combination with other licit or illicit drugs and this renders almost unpredictable all the possible adverse effects including cancer. Anyway, athletes should be made aware that long-term treatment with doping agents might increase the risk of developing cancer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anabolic Agents / adverse effects*
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / drug effects*
  • Doping in Sports*
  • Erythropoietin / adverse effects*
  • Human Growth Hormone / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I / adverse effects*
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced*
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Risk Assessment
  • Steroids / adverse effects*


  • Anabolic Agents
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Steroids
  • Erythropoietin
  • Human Growth Hormone
  • Insulin-Like Growth Factor I