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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.
It would have been fascinating had Wells been present last May 24 in San Diego to hear and to comment on the paper read by Dr. William J. Taylor at the National Convention of the American College of Sports Medicine. A general practitioner specializing in nonsurgical sports medicine, Taylor has a particular interest in the increased use among athletes of the drug Somatotropin, or human growth hormone (hGH). Wells would have heard Taylor say there's little doubt that it's now possible to give a youngster who under normal conditions would reach a maximum height of 6 feet sufficient growth hormone to cause him to grow to 7 feet or even 7'6", with a corresponding increase in bulk—a sort of "selective gigantism" intended to produce colossal athletes on the order of the U.S.S.R.'s 7'2" basketball player Iuliana Semenova, who, despite her occasional clumsiness, can often dominate a game because of her size.
He would have seen the slides Taylor showed of the changes effected in the 1920s and '30s in rats and dogs that had been given massive doses of an early form of growth hormone which, though crude, sometimes produced animals of twice normal length, with a 250% gain in muscle weight and a 40% reduction in body fat. He would have heard Taylor urge his listeners to support a movement to place human growth hormone on the list of controlled substances, alongside anabolic steroids, amphetamines and tranquilizers, before the sales of hGH on the black market get completely out of hand.
As was the case with anabolic steroids, the use of growth hormone has spread from bodybuilding and competitive weightlifting to other sports. It's used by women as well as men, by athletes who are less and less "elite" and by younger and younger athletes. In the next decade, high school and even junior high school athletes may begin to feel left out if they are unable to buy the extra height and bulk that they might come to assume hGH offers. Although such growth in abnormally small children who are not deficient in growth hormone is unproven, leading endocrinologists believe the hormone is effective, at least on some of these children. Scientists expect that because hGH is anabolic, it will put bulk on athletes, but they won't speculate as to how much, or how long that bulk will last once they are off the hormone.
An avid bodybuilder and marathoner himself, in close touch with sports in which ergogenic aids are used, Taylor has been alarmed by such practices for a number of years. He's no longer just concerned by the rapid spread of hGH among athletes but also by the eagerness of parents to obtain it for their children.
"Somewhere these parents have read or heard that hGH can increase height," Taylor says, "and so they want their sons to have it. Price is sometimes no object. It's as if they're buying their boy an expensive pair of running shoes. And if that happens, it will be terribly wrong."
If fathers can convince themselves that it's in their children's best interests to hold them at a certain grade level for an extra year or two so that they can attain the competitive edge of extra height and bulk by the time they arrive in senior high—why wouldn't those same fathers be drawn to the notion of having a taller, heavier, bluer-chip son? All it would take is evidence, even if the evidence was questionable, that the use of human growth hormone wouldn't produce unwanted side effects. Even without such evidence, many athletes are already spending up to $200 a week on hGH in the hope that tales of its powerful anabolic, or muscle-building, effects are true. All this has certain interesting implications, particularly in sports in which height and weight are important.
To separate the science from the fiction of hGH, it helps to understand just what the substance is and what it was designed to do. Basically, it's a hormone made up of amino acids that is produced by the pituitary gland. Human growth hormone comes from the extraction and purification of growth hormone removed from the pituitary glands of cadavers. This is an expensive process, and the supply is limited.
Although scientists have been aware since the 1920s that growth hormone exists in lower animals, such as cows, hogs and dogs, these same scientists once believed that humans neither had it nor would benefit from it. In the early 1950s a number of exceptionally small children were treated with animal GH, but it had no effect. Years later it was discovered that a substance extracted from monkey pituitaries did have an effect on humans. Finally, in 1956, it was found that GH from primates (man, monkeys, apes, etc.) would have an effect on lower species—but not vice versa—and on each other.
Two years later, growth stimulation from treatment with hGH was reported in a child who had an underactive pituitary—a deficiency in growth hormone. In 1963 the National Pituitary Agency (now the National Hormone and Pituitary Program) was established to collect glands, process the hormone and distribute it. Today the program collects 50,000 to 60,000 glands each year and provides hGH free of charge to approximately 2,500 children whose extreme shortness is attributable to insufficient production of the hormone. But because the supply is so scarce, doses that are almost surely less than optimal are given only to those most deficient.