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Friday, 26 July, 2002, 00:43 GMT 01:43 UK
Hormone therapy linked to cancer
Growth hormone
Growth hormone has been used for decades
People who take human growth hormone treatment may be at increased risk of developing bowel and colon cancer, research suggests.

Scientists say the finding is far from conclusive, and that more work is needed to confirm their suspicions.

Our data do suggest the need for increased awareness of the possibility of cancer risks

Professor Anthony Swerdlow
They also stress that no such link has been made with the modern synthetic form of growth hormone that is now used in treatment - although it is possible that it would have the same effect.

Their finding centres on the use of growth hormone taken directly from the pituitary glands of cadavers.

This was widely used until the mid-1980s as a treatment for children and young adults whose growth was impaired.

The researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research and Institute of Child Health, UK, studied data on 1,848 people in the UK who were treated with human growth hormone between 1959 and 1985.

They found that these people were almost three times more likely to die from cancer overall.

But their risk of dying from colorectal cancer was 11 times higher.

Greater vigilance

Writing in The Lancet medical journal, lead researcher Professor Anthony Swerdlow said: "Our data do not show conclusively whether cancer incidence is increased by growth hormone treatment, but they do suggest the need for increased awareness of the possibility of cancer risks, and for surveillance of growth hormone-treated patients.

"At the moment this is a possibility that needs further investigation, rather than a certain relationship that is a cause for immediate concern."

It is possible that use of human growth hormone increases the risk of cancer by boosting levels of a chemical in the body called IGF-1, which has been shown to stimulate the division of cancer cells.

However, it is also possible that people who are deficient in growth hormone might naturally be more predisposed to colorectal cancer, and that the treatment itself has no effect.

In an accompanying commentary, Dr Edward Giovannucci, of the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, said it was important to stress that growth hormone treatment had health benefits.

However, he said: "While the data reported by Professor Swerdlow and colleagues should not discourage appropriate treatment of growth hormone deficiency, they should provoke reassessment of the risks and benefits of growth hormone therapy for more controversial indications that are unrelated to growth hormone deficiency, particularly if such treatment is prescribed for long periods."

Muscle bulk

Growth hormone, as well as helping to promote growth, can be used to build muscle bulk, and improve cardiac performance. It has been used by bodybuilders as an alternative to steroids.

However, it is not officially licensed for such use in the UK.

The Society for Endocrinology and the British Society for Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes issued a joint statement welcoming the study.

However, it stressed that artificial growth hormone was of greater purity than the natural version, and that doses were more tightly controlled than they once were.

The statement went on: "We believe replacing the missing growth hormone in severely growth hormone deficient patients can dramatically improve the quality of life of affected adult patients, and allow growth hormone deficient children to grow to a normal adult height.

"UK endocrinologists treat growth hormone deficient patients very conservatively, with only the most severely deficient patients receiving ongoing treatment."

See also:

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