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Panel Backs Use of Growth Hormone in Short but Healthy Kids

Skeptical U.S. scientific group gives Eli Lily & Co. approval to extend treatment to children who don't have diseases that stunt growth.

June 11, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Injecting growth hormone into very short but otherwise healthy children won grudging approval from a government advisory panel Tuesday, amid concern about the cost and trouble it would take to increase their adult height by roughly 2 inches.

Growth hormone has been used for 16 years to treat children who are extremely short because their bodies don't naturally produce the substance, and to treat a handful of other growth-stunting diseases. Some 200,000 children worldwide have taken it.

Now one manufacturer, Eli Lilly & Co., is seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration to formally market its brand of growth hormone, called Humatrope, for children who don't have those medical conditions.

The FDA's scientific advisors decided that the company's studies clearly showed children grew between 1.5 inches and 2.8 inches taller after about four years of growth-hormone shots than they otherwise would have.

Lilly would restrict the growth hormone to the abnormally short -- boys predicted to be shorter than 5 feet, 3 inches as adults, and girls shorter than 4 feet, 11 inches, Lilly stressed.

Lilly counts about 400,000 such children ages 7 to 15, but predicts that only about 10% ultimately would receive growth hormone because of tight restrictions it would plan on eligibility, and because many families simply would not want to endure six shots a week for years.

The FDA has long fought cosmetic use of growth hormone, and now is struggling to define just what is meaningful, medically appropriate use of the drug -- without opening the floodgates to normal children merely yearning for a few extra inches.

"Is there a need for growth-enhancing therapy" in abnormally short but otherwise healthy children? asked FDA endocrinology chief Dr. David Orloff.

The panel of scientific advisors agonized over the decision, with many questioning if such a small improvement helped children's quality of life enough to justify spending $10,000 to $25,000 a year for the drug -- and getting so many shots.

"I'm worried about the medicalization of shortness," said women's health specialist Nancy Worcester of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the panel's consumer representative.

"We are talking about treating otherwise perfectly normal kids who are short for five to 10 years" with little information about long-term side effects, said panelist Dr. Deborah Grady of UC San Francisco.

Lilly plans tight restrictions on the drug's availability. Instead of selling it regularly through pharmacies, it can only be prescribed by certain specialists and will be shipped by specially appointed drugstores to patients who undergo a battery of growth tests.

Panelists couldn't say the proper age at which to begin treatment, or how to tell which children should stop the shots because they're not going to respond.

Nicole Costa, 17, of Glen Head, N.Y., took growth hormone for seven years starting at age 6. Her doctor had predicted she'd be only 4-foot-8; she's now 5-foot-2.

She recalls being ostracized in elementary school, unable to reach the water fountain and rejected for sports teams. Had she not grown, she said she couldn't have driven a regular-sized car or bought off-the-rack clothes.

"I hope ... this opportunity will be available to all the children now walking in the shoes I outgrew," she told the FDA panel. "It will make their world a different place," she added.

The panelists backed the plan after hearing from Costa.

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