SI Vault
Terry Todd
October 15, 1984
H.G. Wells is deservedly famous for his ability to persuade us to suspend disbelief in the unbelievable just long enough to set the hook of a story. In his short novel The Food of the Gods, he postulates the discovery of a substance called Herakleophorbia, the food of Hercules. Fed at first to day-old chicks to promote growth, the stuff winds up in a few baby bottles, and off the story galumphs, ending with a small colony of young giants squaring off against the citizenry of an angry England in what both sides feel will be a cataclysmic war. Of course, it's only a fantasy, but fantasies sometimes have a way of being anticipatory.
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October 15, 1984

The Use Of Human Growth Hormone Poses A Grave Dilemma For Sport

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All of the hGH produced and distributed by the NHPP goes to children who need it. There are two other sources for hGH sold in the U.S.—Italy and Sweden—but because supplies from those countries are also limited, athletes are, in effect, competing with children for the substance.

In a recent letter to the editor of Flex, a bodybuilding magazine, Dr. Louis E. Underwood, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of North Carolina and an expert in hGH physiology and pharmacology, addressed this issue in responding to an article by Dr. Robert F. Kerr, a California physician (The Steroid Predicament, SI, Aug. 1, 1983). Kerr wrote that he had prescribed hGH for hundreds of athletes—and claimed there had been no harmful side effects. Wrote Underwood: "Every unit of Growth Hormone used by bodybuilders denies a short, growth-hormone deficient child the chance to achieve normal growth and an acceptable adult height.... I personally am appalled to learn that Dr. Kerr has supervised the use of growth hormone in 150 bodybuilders."

Underwood was astonished when several bodybuilders, who had misread his comments in the magazine, phoned him asking for help in getting hGH for themselves. "Such selfish stupidity," he says, "is no doubt responsible for the fact that I now have 40 children in my care who need hGH and can't get it."

Other physicians share Underwood's concern, and his opposition to the use of hGH by normal adults and children. They do seem to agree, however, with Taylor's assessment that hGH has the capacity to significantly increase height, even in normal children. But at what price, the endocrinologists wonder, aware as they are of the horrific side effects that can occur when there is a natural oversupply of the body's human growth hormone.

One of these side effects in adults is acromegaly, a condition described in Death in the Locker Room by Bob Goldman with Patricia Bush and Dr. Ronald Katz: "The bones of the feet, hands, fingers, nose and jaw grow, along with the soft tissue of the face—the nose, lips, nasolabial folds, forehead and tongue—[which] increase in size to give one a Frankenstein look.... Later on, osteoarthritis and limitation of joint range or motion occur. The increased growth hormone [also] causes the heart to enlarge so that congestive heart failure may occur." All seven endocrinologists interviewed for this article agreed that the symptoms of acromegaly, which also include a predisposition to sugar diabetes, could theoretically be produced by injecting large amounts of hGH over a period of time into an otherwise normal child.

Excessive naturally produced growth hormone in children can also cause gigantism—development to abnormally large size. Because of recently devised treatments to eliminate the most frequent cause of excess GH, a tumor within the pituitary gland, gigantism and acromegaly are seldom seen today. One thing is indeed clear from the medical literature: Both acromegalics and pituitary giants, for a variety of complicated and incompletely understood reasons, don't live as long as normal people.

In view of the potential dangers, why has hGH become so popular? The best explanation seems to be the publicity it has received by word of mouth and from bodybuilding magazines such as Muscle Digest and Muscle & Fitness, which have published articles by hGH apologists like Kerr. Imagine the effect on a muscle-hungry youngster of such comments from Kerr as, "[hGH produces] greatly enhanced gains, beyond what you would expect to achieve using anabolic steroids.... I have seen increases of as much as 40 pounds in a six-week period, but with a reduction of body fat at the same time."

Another factor that has added to the appeal of hGH is the boosterism, beginning with its publication in 1981, of the small but influential Underground Steroid Handbook. The publisher-editor, Dan Duchaine, reveals in his definition of hGH the far-out mind-set shared by many young athletes: "Wow, this is great stuff. It is the best drug for permanent muscle gains. It...makes your whole body grow.... This is the only drug that can remedy bad genetics, as it will make anybody grow. A few side effects can occur, however. It may elongate your chin, feet, and hands, but this is arrested with cessation of the drug. Diabetes in teenagers is possible with it.... Massive increases in weight over such a short time can, of course, give you heart problems.... GH use is the biggest gamble that an athlete can take, as the side effects are irreversible. Even with all that, we LOVE the stuff."

Naturally, such claims flashed like summer lightning along the iron grapevine, and among world-class athletes—many of whom, regardless of their sport, train with weights and thus have contact with the more extreme advocates of drug use and who began to view hGH as a way around increasingly sophisticated drug testing. Because there is no adequate test for detecting hGH, it isn't on the International Olympic Committee's list of banned substances. This, of course, has only added to the bullishness of the hGH market, and the people who supply it to athletes have become avid for more.

In August a large quantity of hGH was stolen from the Children's Hospital in Montreal—714 bottles, with a street value of as much as $160,000. Twenty-five children were thereby in danger of going without the critical substance for a year. Fortunately, the crisis was averted.

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