The Lancet recently waxed enthusiastic about the potential of growth hormone supplementation in elderly people to reverse some of the effects of old age.
The first short term trial of GH supplementation in elderly volunteers showed that GH increased lean tissue, decreased fat tissue and increased bone synthesis and density.
Hypopituitarism (low functioning of the pituitary gland, where human growth hormone is manufactured) is associated with an increased risk of death from vascular disease. The thought is that GH replacement may help to lower cholesterol levels.
The catch is, of course, the problems with growth hormone already shown in children. GH hormones administered to children before 1985 were taken from the pituitary glands of cadavers. A definite association was discovered between pituitary derived GH and spongiform encephalopathy Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or a human version of "mad cow" disease. CJ ordinarily is a rare abnormality of the brain caused by some unidentified slow virus, which produces symptoms of progressive dementia, muscle wasting and involuntary movements, leading to death about a year after the onset of disease.
Of the estimated 1900 individuals so far given contaminated growth hormone in the UK , six thus far have developed CJ disease. Although pituitary derived hormones have been banned since May 1985, according to the Child Growth Foundation, efforts to trace all the patients receiving this form of GH have only been 80 per cent successful.
Growth hormone now licensed for use here is made biosynthetically. Although you can't get "mad people" disease anymore, there are now ample concerns about its cancer risks. Several studies have pointed to an increased risk of leukaemia in GH-treated children (The Lancet, June 1, 1991). One study following six children found that two had developed tumours and showed immunodeficiency symptoms; one, aged 5 subsequently died after only five months on GH. The second child, aged 13, developed extensive leukaemia after 44 months on the GH, and is now being treated with chemotherapy.