The Effects Of Human Growth Hormone On Speed

A new study shows human growth hormone (HGH) has startling effects on speed, yet the major U.S. sports leagues still don't test for it. Host Guy Raz speaks with Gary Wadler, a professor of medicine at New York University and chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, about the study and what HGH can do to your body.

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GUY RAZ, host:

If you watched any of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, you might remember the men's 100-meter dash.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

Unidentified Man #1: Here they come down the track. Usain Bolt (unintelligible), winning by daylight.

RAZ: That's NBC's call of Jamaica's Usain Bolt, winning the gold medal. He broke the world record, running it in 9.69 seconds. But the bronze medalist was just two-tenths of a second behind.

Now according to a new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, if that bronze medalist, who was the American Walter Dix, if he'd taken injections of human growth hormone, he might have been able to shave enough time off his run to beat Usain Bolt.

Now it turns out all the major pro sports leagues in this country have banned HGH, but none of them - not one of them - test for it. And that's a big problem, according to Dr. Gary Wadler. He is a top official with the World Anti-Doping Agency. And he's with me in our New York Studios.

Welcome.

Dr. GARY WADLER (World Anti-Doping Agency): Nice being with you.

RAZ: Explain briefly what HGH is. It's not a steroid, right?

Dr. WADLER: No. Human growth hormone is a hormone that's normally produced in all our bodies from the pituitary gland. And it's a critical hormone and growth (unintelligible) of various tissues of the body beginning at very young ages.

RAZ: So effectively, it is something that is prescribed medically. It's not easily available or available over the counter?

Dr. WADLER: It's not available over the counter. In fact, it's very, very restrictive, used partly because it has significant side effects associated with it.

RAZ: What kind of side effects?

Dr. WADLER: Well, basically, wind up producing the equivalent of the disease acromegaly, that is a disease where the body makes too much growth hormone as a result of the pituitary tumor, and what you see are people developing swelling, hypertension, distortion of their face and hands and feet, increased risk of colon cancer, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and I can go on.

RAZ: Now, explain how HGH could enhance the performance of an athlete.

Dr. WADLER: Well, there's been great question whether it actually can enhance the performance of athletes. And this is the first study that actually showed that although it did not increase strength, power or endurance, it did increase what we call sprint power, basically the sprint. It's about a four percent increase. But that four percent in high level of competition is the different between a gold medal and finishing further back in the pack.

RAZ: Now, this was tested on amateur athletes. How quickly did you see improvements in the speed of athletes who were given regular doses of the human growth hormone?

Dr. WADLER: Well, that's all occurred within the context of the study, which is about eight weeks long.

RAZ: So fairly quickly. I mean...

Dr. WADLER: Oh, no. It's rather quickly.

RAZ: Yeah. I'm wondering if you ever worried that this study could create the unintended consequence of many more athletes actually wanting to use HGH seeing the results of the study to show that you can become faster. Is that a possibility?

Dr. WADLER: Oh, that's more than a possibility. I mean, that's always my concern when I'm asked to discuss these things, am I putting a nugget of information to somebody's brain, which will then germinate into bad and dangerous and behaviors. I can only say that it is a very dangerous procedure. It's an unethical, it's illegal. But we need to be transparent and people need to know what's going on in sport. So there's no question that is an issue.

RAZ: Dr. Wadler, how widespread do you suspect the use of HGH is in professional sports in the United States?

Dr. WADLER: Well, I'm concerned about that. The only test we now have available is a blood test. And all four professional sports leagues refuse to do that. The argument that taking blood would somehow impair performance makes no sense at all. The amount of blood we're talking about is infinite (unintelligible) small.

RAZ: But effectively, if professional sports leagues in the United States are not testing for HGH, then there are no consequences for an athlete to use them.

Dr. WADLER: Unless you test them either in the act or possession or transporting or some illegal behavior, currently, they have a free pass.

RAZ: That's Gary Wadler. He's a professor of medicine at NYU and a senior member of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Dr. Wadler, thank you.

Dr. WADLER: My pleasure.

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