No youth-pills

Human growth hormone, the drug hyped for being able to reverse the process of aging is exposed for its inefficiency

Published: Saturday 15 June 1996

THIS one's for the believers in the grow- young pills. The drug that was once hailed as an anti-aging agent is now being discredited. Human growth hor- mone, the drug under question, created euphoria among health freaks when it was reported to reverse the aging process. A recent study, how- ever, regards the drug as a placebo process. Human growth hormone is more likely to cause puffy ankles and sore joints than restore youth, says the study.

In 1990, an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported striking changes in 12 men over age 60 who had taken the drug for six months. Apparently, these subjects gained lean body mass, lost fat and their skin thickened, taking on a more youth- fullook. The study was conducted by Daniel Rudman and his colleagues at the Medical College of Wisconsin, US, and aging in part, was attributed to natural decline in the body's ability to secrete growth hormones. Researchers held that six months of treatment with the substance appeared to cancel out 10 to 20 years of some age related changes.

Interviews of test subjects intensified the mystique about the growth hormone. Their claims that the drug had rejuvenated their energy, strength and complexions created an aura around the drug. Even at Wetes and body-builders, who believed it could enhance their performance, were among those scrambling for it.

But the hype created around the drug received a set-back recently, when Maxine Papadakis of the University of California declared on the basis of his study that, "the drug is not a fountain of youth".

Available since 1985, the human growth hormone is produced by genetically engineered bacteria, Earlier, it used to be extracted from human cadavers. This, however, is thought to have infected several patients with Cruetzfeldt- Jacob disease, the fatal neurological disorder currently being investigated for its links with the mad cow disease in England.

The youth drug is recommended for increasing growth in children who are either deficient in the hormone or suffering from kidney failure.

Papadakis and his colleagues tried to find out the effects of the growth hormone on a person's strength, endurance and mental sharpness. They conducted a careful study of 52 men, aged more than 70, all with levels of growth hormone normal for their age. Half of the subjects took injections of growth hormone three times a week, and half took placebo shots containing no hormone.

Neither the researchers nor the patients knew who got the hormone, a double-blinded study as it was, To the surprise of scientists, no improvements were noticed among the test subjects, ~ On the contrary, the patients experienced side effects. "They had swelling in their ankles and lower legs, their joints ached and their hands were stiff," says Papadakis.

To explain the unexpected results shown by patients in the Rudman study, Papadakis puts forth an interest- ing proposition, He suggests that since the study was not blinded, patients were psychologically tuned to feel better.

"I think those men were expecting to feel better, and they did." Whatever the reason may have been, the recent study shows that human growth hormone just does not reverse the biological Big Ben.

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