What's the Deal with Human Growth Hormone? After damning accusations by Major League Baseball's Mitchell Report, New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte has admitted not to steroid use but to using human growth hormone. Gary Wadler of the American College of Sports Medicine tell explains what HGH is and how it differs from steroids.
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What's the Deal with Human Growth Hormone?

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What's the Deal with Human Growth Hormone?

What's the Deal with Human Growth Hormone?

What's the Deal with Human Growth Hormone?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/17389979/17389940" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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After damning accusations by Major League Baseball's Mitchell Report, New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte has admitted not to steroid use but to using human growth hormone. Gary Wadler of the American College of Sports Medicine tell explains what HGH is and how it differs from steroids.


Thanks for spending part of your day with THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. That's Thomas Dolby, handpicked for the BPP by Moby, our guest DJ today. I'm Alison Stewart, and my guest host, Mr. Bill Wolff.


Also known as Mr. Alison Stewart by concierges all over Italy.

STEWART: This is going okay. You're going to stick around.

WOLFF: For at least another two days.

STEWART: All right. We are on digital FM satellite and online at npr.org. What's coming up - I just called you Luke. What's coming up, Bill?

(Soundbite of laugh)

WOLFF: Wow. We should really see a counselor. Coming up, Leah Rosen, one of the all-time great film critics. She works for People magazine, and she is here because Sunday was the 30th anniversary of - watch the hair…

STEWART: watch the hair.

WOLFF: Yeah, "Saturday Night Fever," 30th anniversary and Leah Rosen knows all about it. But before we get to that, let's get caught up on on the news with the great Rachel Martin.

STEWART: I'm sorry, honey.

WOLFF: This is NPR.


Hey good morning, everyone.

South Korea has a new president today. Exit polls showed Lee Myung-bak winning the election by a landslide, and his closest rival has now conceded the race. Voters overlooked fraud allegations about Lee in the hopes that the former Hyundai CEO will revive the economy. Lee pledged to take a more critical view of Seoul's engagement with rival North Korea and seek closer ties with the United States.

The South Korean government is investigating whether Lee manipulated stocks. The investigation is supposed to wrap up before the February inauguration. And Lee has said he will step down from the presidency if he's found to be at fault.

Onto another election now, this one in South Africa, where the governing African National Congress Party has chosen the controversial former Deputy President Jacob Zuma as its new leader. Zuma defeated the outgoing ANC boss, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki after a bitter political battle.

Here's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton with more.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Jacob Zuma beat Thabo Mbeki into second place by a clear margin as the new ANC leader. This puts the man Mbeki fired as South Africa's deputy president two years ago in a strong position to become the country's next head of state in 2009. But Zuma, who has faced corruption charges and have been acquitted of rape, could still face trial for graft linked to a multimillion dollar arms deal. His supporters say the corruption scandal was a politically motivated smear campaign that should not prevent Zuma from becoming president. Jacob Zuma is a popular ANC leader who many hopeful focuses on South Africa's poor despite economic growth on Mbeki, the president's critics accuse him of centralizing power and concentrating on the wealthy elite.

MARTIN: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

An earthquake rocked the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska last night. The magnitude, 7.2 quake struck on 11:30 p.m. There were no reports of any injuries or damage. The Aleutian Islands are a chain of more than 300 islands that extends southwestward from Alaska into the Northern Pacific Ocean. A tsunami warning was cancelled early this morning for Alaska's coast after officials determine that waves from the quake pose no major threat.

Jerry Bruckheimer - you know him - the Hollywood producer who gave us such classic-action hits since Beverly Hills cop and the television series CSI. Now the big name in big car chases is going in the video game business. According to the New York Times today Bruckheimer's company is expected to announce a deal with MTV to develop games that could start appearing in stores in 2009. A few months ago, MTV said it would invest more than $500 million in its interactive entertainment business over the next two years. They're seeking out top talent like Bruckheimer to develop their new gaming products.

That's the news. It's always online at npr.org.

WOLFF: This is NPR.

MARTIN: Hi, guys.

WOLFF: Hi, Rachel. We got to get in the videogame business, you know that?

MARTIN: You and me, Bill.

WOLFF: We are in the wrong racket.

MARTIN: Tell me about it.

WOLFF: Alison, give me your ideas when you have moment.

STEWART: I think of the BPP video game would be about coffee-seeking.

MARTIN: We should totally name it public radio video game.

STEWART: That's what I say.

MARTIN: A first-person shooter, public radio video game.

STEWART: Rachel, you go work on that.

WOLFF: Read The Economist for 50 points.

STEWART: Rachel Martin, thanks.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

WOLFF: In the wake of the damming accusation by Major League Baseball's Mitchell Report which was out last week, New York Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte always perceived to be one of the good guys has admitted not to steroid use, but to the use of human growth hormone. Pettitte says he tried HGH 2-4 times in 2002 while recovering from an elbow injury. His mea culpa implied that he did not intent for drugs to enhance his performance beyond what they normally are, but rather simply to recover more quickly from his injury, so he could return to his team. In other words, his confession was also a statement of his own nobility. And he's not the only accused ballplayer to confess to HGH use as a recovery enhancer.

Former Major League second baseman, former St. Louis Cardinal, Fernando Vina, has admitted he used HGH in 2003 while trying to heal from injuries incurred during the grind of previous summers.

Mr. FERNANDO VINA (Former Second Baseman, St. Louis Cardinal): It got to a point that I got desperate and ended up trying HGH to try to get back and heal myself. It wasn't to try to, you know, hit homeruns or get an edge. I mean, for me, it was to try to get back on the field. That was the bottom line. It was something that, you know, it wasn't getting better and I tried it and it wasn't right. No. It wasn't - obviously, it was wrong because it was a wrong thing to do. I'm embarrassed by it.

WOLFF: So what exactly are human growth hormones? Do they actually promote healing, and how are they different from anabolic steroids? To answer those questions, we turn to Dr. Gary Wadler, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Dr. Wadler, thanks for being with us.

Dr. GARY WADLER (Fellow, American College of Sports and Medicine; Member, World Anti-Doping Agency): Good to be with you, Bill.

WOLFF: Tell me, what is human growth hormone? How does it work?

Dr. WADLER: Well, human growth hormone is in every one of us. It comes through the pituitary gland. It governs, as you might suspect from the name, growth, particularly in childhood. It does have some effects in adults but it's primarily an important hormone that governs growth for normal growth and development. It has been synthetically produced back in about mid-1980s for individuals who have a deficiency of growth hormone and may present themselves as being children who are extremely short, or adults who have tumors, or vascular problems, or trauma, or surgery that their pituitary gland can no longer make growth hormone. And it's also used in the terminal stages of AIDS/HIV.

WOLFF: And do you believe that it does help athletes to recuperate from injury?

Dr. WADLER: You know, these literature on that is really not very supportive of that. In fact, it's more of a hearsay kind of thing than any good science studies supporting it. Although, there are some articles here and there, it's just you might have some effect, but certainly no major effect. And it's really not an approved used of human growth hormone. There's laws regulating human growth hormones are kind of distinct. And basically it only can be used for those indications which were approved by the secretary of health and human services and fundamentally the three I just told you - the only three. So recovery from surgery and from injury really is not an indication, and it could be construed of violation of federal law.

WOLFF: Okay. So it's a little bit of nonsense when these fellows come out and say, oh, I'm sorry I did HGH. I was just trying to come back from injury. Having read a game of shadows, I learned that they inject HGH usually on our little flap of skin near the waistline. What happens then? So you have human growth hormone in you. Are you able to lift more weights instantly or does the human growth hormone just build the muscle without your doing anything?

Dr. WADLER: Well, that's a very good question. And there is a condition called acromegaly in which individuals have a pituitary gland tumor and make too much growth hormone and is sort of an analogous situation, in one case, too much growth hormone is from the injection; the other case, too much growth hormone is from - but a tumor. But in both cases, all parts of the body have a tendency to get large, including the muscle. But if you look at the muscle under a microscope, which really not normal muscle. It's big muscle but it's not normal muscle. And so what we've seen - the pattern, well, I think you've seen it alluded to over the last week or so, is a combination of low-dose anabolic steroids and growth hormone in a cocktail fashion. And there's some evidence, the combination of the two is greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, one plus one doesn't equal two. One plus one equals three.

And what they're doing, at least in competitive sports, is they take sufficiently low doses of testosterone to evade or try to evade protection, and because professional sports don't allow - doesn't allow blood testing, they would not test it for growth hormones, so you wind up in a situation where individuals are taking both low doses of anabolic steroids and growth hormone in combination, not being found out by testing and, in fact, enhancing performance. So I think that's really the landscape that's going on right now.

WOLFF: Yeah. George Mitchell indicated he thought that steroid use was actually on the decline and that human growth hormone use was on the rise, was the emerging problem in Major League Baseball. Do you know - you're a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, very familiar with all of this - when did HGH appear on the scene in professional athletics. We've also seen it in football and I assume, wherever they're cheating, they're using HGH. When and where, if you know, did HGH emerge?

Dr. WADLER: Well, HGH really got a shot in the arm back in the mid-1980s. Prior to that, it was being used in some sports but they realized that people who were injecting that formula of human growth hormone actually were giving themselves the potential of a neurological disease because prior to mid-1980s, it was ground up human pituitary glands that were being used to get the growth hormone. But in the mid-1980s, using recombinant DNA, they've able to produce it in the laboratory.

And once that happened and then the concerns about developing neurological disease dissipated and the growth began to increase. It shifted to more growth hormone in recent years as we've gotten better detecting anabolic steroids. And so those who were determined to gain unfair athletic advantage one way or another, increasingly began to use human growth hormone. And when they realized the combination of growth hormone and anabolic steroids were synergistic, we began to see still a greater use of human growth hormone. And then all the publicity who find out about the fact that professional baseball and the national football league refused to do blood test, still with another - well, my choice of word here is shot in the arm, to the abuse of human growth hormone. And so there really are problems that were going on for better than 10 years. It's so hard to quantify. This is all, obviously, than illegally and illicitly and I think we're going to see more attention in law enforcement to deal with the growth of the…

WOLFF: With the problem the problem, right. I got it. Okay.

Thank you very much, Dr. Gary Wadler. We really appreciate your time this morning.

Dr. WADLER: My pleasure.

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