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A Drug's Promise (or Not) of Youth

Growth hormone is the anti-aging industry's most potent and controversial weapon. Some say it works wonders. Some say it could shorten your life.

July 09, 2006|Brian Alexander | Brian Alexander is a contributing editor at Glamour and writes for MSNBC, Outside and others. He is the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion."

The FDA approved GH primarily to treat dwarfism in children, and the feds say (not that they do much about it) that doctors are breaking the law by prescribing GH for adults who haven't been diagnosed with two very specific, narrowly defined ailments, neither of which is related to having a birthday every year. On the other hand, one of those ailments is a growth hormone deficiency, and since GH declines with age, you could argue that anyone over 30 suffers a lack of it. A lot of doctors must be making that argument, considering that one study estimated that about 30% of GH prescriptions in the U.S. are being written for treatments unapproved by the FDA, according to a Journal of the American Medical Assn. article published last October.

Chein disagrees with anyone who says that what he's doing is illegal, and with suggestions that he might be in the business just for the money. "I already have fame worldwide and I already have financial success," he says in an e-mail. "I believe in this cause, and that's why I fight for my mission."

Whether for money, for altruism or for God, Chein helped pioneer the anti-aging business model that has fueled a worldwide boom. In the last two years, Pfizer's growth hormone sales have jumped to $808 million from $481 million. Eli Lilly, Serono, Genentech and other GH makers have also reported gains. The companies don't report how much they owe these gains to anti-agers.

At the Life Extension Institute, I sit in a room across the hall from the shrine of the bikini-clad oldsters, about to take the H-Scan test, a bunch of drills run on a souped-up PC. The idea is to measure my "biomarkers of aging," and I doubt a computer can do that. When I later call S. Jay Olshansky, a University of Illinois public health professor who specializes in aging research, he backs me up. "There is no such thing as a machine that can measure aging." But at the moment, I am perfectly happy to suspend disbelief. I can't wait to suspend disbelief.

And within minutes I am perspiring because I am taking the tests with a vengeance. Every time a light glows, I smash the corresponding red button as fast as I can, supposedly proving I have cat-like "visual reaction time."

Maybe I am so motivated because Dillon punched into the PC a baseline age of 19 just to show me how much I have crumbled. We'll just see about that. During test number 7, I blow into a tube and the machine charts my lung volume. The graphic on the monitor curves way above the normal range for 19-year-olds.

"Yes!" I say to myself, imagining teenage boys in awe of my virile manhood. "In your face, punks!"

And yet, when the testing is complete, Dillon shakes her head pitifully over my readout. On the scale of typical 19-year-olds, I didn't even register. Don't feel bad, she says. Patients often say " 'Oh my memory is fine,' but this shows it's not."

"So," I ask her, "people come in saying, 'I am feeling good,' and then take the test and see they aren't?"

"Right. You might be feeling good for 35 or 40, but we say, 'Let's make you feel great!' "

I do get one bit of good news. My 45-year-old eyes are better than 53% of 19-year-old men.

Daniel Rudman, the Medical College of Wisconsin researcher, was horrified by the impact of his 1990 study. He died in 1994, insisting up to the end to whoever would listen that any use of growth hormone for anti-aging was wildly premature. His widow tried to keep his name off any promotional materials. Still, in 1997, when American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine founder Ron Klatz published "Grow Young with HGH," he dedicated the book to Rudman, whose "vision and pioneering human research with growth hormone for anti-aging marked the beginning of the end of aging, and the birth of the 'ageless society.' "

Rudman was worried because growth hormone is a key spoke in what endocrinologists call the "GH/IGF-1 axis." Growth hormone stimulates the production of insulin growth factor 1, which, in turn, affects everything from sugar-regulating insulin to sex steroids such as testosterone and estrogen. A chart of these hormone interactions looks like a map of the London Underground drawn by MC Escher. And as with that massive subway, one train at one stop can wreak havoc with the whole system. "The right word is 'overwhelming,' " says Dr. Marc Blackman, a scientist-physician with the National Institutes of Health who studies hormones and aging. "It is extremely complex."

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