Monday, February 18, 2008

Fountain of Youth??

Growth hormones are once again in the news. The difference is that this time it is not the debate over the presence of growth hormones in the food supply. Instead, the focus is now over the use of growth hormone supplements. Over the past few months the media has been covering a set of stories regarding human growth hormone, also known as hGH or somatotropin.

The controversy of the Mitchell report and Roger Clemens in professional baseball (although mostly focused on steroid use), admittance by performing artists that they have used somatotropin to look younger, and even Rambo's confession that he not only uses synthetic growth hormones, but also recently tried to illegally transport some into Australia, are just a few of the more recent headlines that have raised public interest in learning more about the use of performance-enhancing growth hormones. And as usual, the public may not be getting the complete story.

Growth Hormones: Fact vs. Fiction

If idols in Hollywood and professional sports are using growth hormones, then why shouldn't we all use human growth hormone supplements? After all, the scientific community presented evidence in 1990 that injections of somatotropin can provide small decreases in body fat and increase muscle mass — neither of which appears to be a bad idea when we are faced with the fact that our population is getting older and heavier. There are claims that it can increase the sex drive and remove wrinkles.

As an aging science writer, that doesn't sound too bad, except that in the back of my head the nagging voice of the scientist in me keeps saying that maybe I should check the facts first.

So what are the facts? Well, the truth is that the biotechnology community is still investigating whether the use of somatotropin really has any of these beneficial effects. The hormone is used clinically to treat complications from HIV, dwarfism in children, and burn victims, but as a performance-enhancer the debate is ongoing.

More recent studies appear to contradict the 1990 report, and the few longer-term projects on the effects of growth hormone supplements in seniors have indicated that use of somatotropin does not provide a significant increase in muscle strength, but it does increase swelling, joint pain and chances of carpal tunnel syndrome. Several researchers are currently looking at whether use of growth hormones increases the rate and spread of certain types of cancers.

Reevaluating Role Models

But really, if an adult wants to take a supplement, should we be concerned? After all, a trip into any pharmacy or grocery store reveals aisle upon aisle of unproven remedies for any number of conditions. One story in general explains why as a society we should not condone the use of somatotropin for reasons other than those approved by the FDA.

In January 2008 Luis Fernando Llosa and L. Jon Wertheim reported in the rather disturbing Sports Illustrated article "Sins of the Father" on the real costs of the use of human growth hormone. The story focused on Corey Gahan, a teen-age in-line skating champion who admitted that he was pressured by his coaches and father into receiving injections of steroids and human growth hormones for the sole purpose of improving athletic performance. The combination was highly successful, and Corey became a national champion in his age class. However, after routine testing Corey was stripped of his titles and banned from additional competition.

The truly sad aspect of this is the fact that both Corey and his father, who served jail time for providing the drugs to Corey, both believed that the only way to be competitive was to take performance-enhancing compounds.

And where did they get this idea? From professional athletes of course — the very ones teen-age athletes put on the pedestal as role models. In other words, society set the standards and the young athletes pay the price. Unfortunate as it may sound, youth look to us as role models.

Too Good to Be True?

There is a real chance that supplements of growth hormone may provide some real medical benefits. Ongoing trials have already hinted that this is the case. But as scientists in the biotech community, we should begin an aggressive campaign of our own to let society know that they need to be patient and wait for all of the evidence to come in before jumping on the somatotropin bandwagon. The medical community should make it clear that they will report all illicit use of their drugs, in any form, since failing to do so seems to send the message that doctors and physicians don't really care about what is done with the medicines that are prescribed.

And let us agree that we will research the long-term effects of growth hormone use before we sell it as the next miracle drug. Our experience should tell us that when something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Note: this article first appeared in Bioworld Perspectives, (vol 2; #7) on February 14, 2008 and is reprinted here by permission of AHC Media, LLC