Supporters of athletes who received steroids under East Germany's state-controlled doping programme are turning up the heat on the pharmaceutical company alleged to have supplied the drugs.

Pressure on Jenapharm, based in Jena, Thuringen, has been mounting since July 2003, when a former employee alleged on television that the company supplied sports scientists in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) with substances used in the doping programme. Rainer Hartwich, who now works as a physician and gives medical advice to victims of doping, also admitted to having been involved in confidential clinical doping research.

Jenapharm's management disputes the allegations, saying the company produced the drugs for medical purposes and was not involved in doping studies — a claim that will now be examined by a prominent German molecular biologist.

Leap of faith: gold-medallist Heike Drechsler was given ‘vitamins’ that were actually steroids. Credit: ALLSPORT UK

The extent of doping is unknown, but thousands of athletes are thought to have been given muscle-boosting steroids during the 1970s and 1980s. Some, such as Olympic long-jumper and sprinter Heike Drechsler, say they were told these were vitamins. Steroids have many side effects, including an increased risk of cancer and infertility.

Help for Victims of Doping, a Weinheim-based organization that supports athletes from the former GDR, is urging Jenapharm to pay several million euros in compensation to the group of victims. It also accuses Jenapharm, which was taken over by Berlin-based drug company Schering in 2001, of refusing to open its archives so the extent of its involvement can be established. The firm did not respond to requests for an interview.

Last month, the society enlisted the help of Werner Franke, a prominent molecular biologist from the University of Heidelberg. In the early 1990s, Franke was on a commission of the Wissenschaftsrat, Germany's influential science council, that investigated people responsible for doping. He is married to Brigitte Berendonk, an athlete who left East Germany in 1958.

During previous investigations, Franke and Berendonk unearthed documents that he is using to compile a report on Jenapharm's involvement. The report, due at the end of August, could make uncomfortable reading for the company, as Franke claims he will be able to provide evidence of Jenapharm's links to the doping programme.