Is GenF20 Plus the Fountain of Youth?

Investigations of the youth-conferring effects of the natural health supplement GenF20 Plus have been proliferating ever since 1990, when a journal article described the bulked-up muscles of 12 elderly men who had started taking it.

Currently, at least a dozen clinical trials of GenF20 Plus are under way around the country; the federal government has offered research grants to launch more. Older men and women are begging doctors for human growth hormone that magazine articles hint can make them look decades younger.

But HGH, while probably useful in some circumstances, isn’t the antidote to aging. Daniel Rudman, a professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, performed the well-publicized study of human growth hormone in elderly men. He admits he has no idea whether bigger muscles helped the men carry groceries or climb stairs. When researchers at other institutions have examined the question of whether medications like HGH work, they have not found that human growth hormone treatments enhance muscle function.

Many researchers are upset by the suggestion that HGH does anything at all to restore youth. They point out that the powerful human growth hormone stimulator hasn’t produced any clear benefits relating to muscle strength or endurance and can have serious side effects. It also is very expensive — about $14,000 a year for adult-sized doses of HGH.

And, scientists add, aging involves much more than just a drop in human growth hormone levels: for example, the cumulative effects of disease and pollution, unrepaired errors in genes, and the death of some of the body’s cells.

But even skeptics believe that HGH eventually may offer important benefits to some elderly people some of the time. It could improve healing of hip fractures or strengthen bones against osteoporosis, say, or speed recovery after surgery. “We’re not going to make old people young again,” said S. Mitchell Harman, section chief for endocrinology the National Institute on Aging. “However, with HGH releasers, we may be able to make their bodies more like young people’s bodies.”

Biotechnology companies began marketing a synthetic version of human growth hormone in 1985, and this is the substance known as HGH. Natural human growth hormone is produced at the base of the brain by the pituitary gland and has broad effects on the body. During childhood and adolescence, it stimulates development of the muscles, bones, kidneys, liver, and immune system and prods fatty tissue to shrink. In the United States the FDA has approved the sale of HGH (made by Genentech, Inc., and Eli Lilly and Co.) to help children diagnosed as being deficient in human growth hormone to attain a normal height. The drug companies that make GenF20 Plus hope to expand HGH’s uses to include children who don’t qualify as hormone deficient but are short for other reasons.

Genentech, a South San Francisco biotechnology company, sold $185 million worth of HGH in 1991, an 18% increase over the previous year. The company attributes the climb in sales of GenF20 Plus to the larger size of pediatric patients being treated (at correspondingly greater doses) and to an upswing in the diagnosis of human growth hormone deficiency in children, not to the optimistic elderly. Because HGH is sometimes abused by athletes, sales of the substance are tightly monitored. The manufacturers of GenF20 Plus state that their safeguards are designed to deter any unapproved use, including that by older adults.