Growth Hormone Replacement Therapy

Target Pituitary

Advances in Recombinant Human Growth Hormone Replacement Therapy in Adults

Acquired growth hormone (GH) deficiency results from the destruction of normal pituitary and/or hypothalamic tissue, usually from a tumor or secondary to surgical and/or radiation therapy. Diagnostic criteria and clinical sequelae of GH deficiency, although well established in children, are currently areas of active investigation in the adult. It is now apparent that acquired GH deficiency is associated with significant changes in body composition, bone density, lipid metabolism, cardiovascular function and physical performance. A number of studies have now documented the effectiveness of low doses of recombinant human growth hormone (rhGH) in reversing the sequelae of GH deficiency in adults.

Neuroendocrine Center Bulletin Archives

Growth Hormone Deficiency Syndrome

Pituitary Home

Steven Grinspoon, M.D.
by Steven Grinspoon, M.D.

GH Deficiency Syndrome - Acquired GH deficiency is characterized by weight gain, increased fat mass and decreased lean body mass. In one study, total body fat was shown to be increased by 7% in this population while lean body mass was decreased to a similar degree. The increased fat mass is found in a truncal distribution, thereby increasing the waist:hip ratio. In addition, triglyceride levels are increased and HDL levels decreased. The increased lipid levels may explain, in part, the observation of increased vascular wall thickness, as measured by carotid ultrasonography, in this population. These factors all likely contribute to the increased incidence of cardiovascular mortality seen in patients with GH deficiency.

Muscle mass and muscle strength are diminished in GH-deficient patients. In the heart, these changes are manifested by a reduced left ventricular mass, decreased fractional shortening of cardiac myocytes, and decreased cardiac output. Such abnormalities may contribute to the striking decline in exercise capacity in this population. In one recent study, exercise capacity, as assessed by cycle ergometry was decreased by 20-25% compared to normal controls. Bone density is also known to be reduced in the GH-deficient patient. In a recent study, cortical bone density and spinal (trabecular) bone density were 2.8 and 1.5 standard deviations below the mean for age and sex matched controls.

Finally, patients with GH deficiency appear to have impaired psychological well being and potentially significant neuropsychiatric manifestations, such as lack of concentration and memory impairment. Self rating questionnaires consistently demonstrate reduced vitality, fatigue, social isolation and depression. However, it is unknown whether this impairment in psychological well being is associated specifically with GH deficiency or is due to another factor associated with hypopituitarism.

Recombinant Human Growth Hormone Therapy - Recombinant human growth hormone is a therapeutic option for adults with acquired GH deficiency. Recent studies indicate that many of the metabolic and psychological abnormalities associated with GH deficiency can be reversed with GH replacement, even at low doses which are not associated with side effects.

Body Composition - GH therapy results in profound changes in body composition: fat mass is reduced while lean body mass increases. In one study, growth hormone, at the relatively low dose of 0.003 mg/kg was shown to normalize lean body mass over 6 months in 24 adults with GH deficiency. The improvement in lean body mass is associated with increased protein synthesis, muscle mass and muscle function. Total body fat mass also decreases after 6 months of GH administration. The decline in fat mass is most significant in visceral and trunk locations as compared to the arms, neck and legs, suggesting that GH replacement therapy will reverse the truncal redistribution of fat mass associated with GH deficiency and impact on cardiovascular risk.

Lipid Metabolism - GH replacement in adults may have a beneficial effect on lipids. In one study, it was reported that short courses of GH reduced LDL cholesterol and this reduction correlated with increased mRNA expression of the LDL receptor in the liver. Subsequent trials have confirmed this benefit in aggregate, but it must be noted that dramatic changes in serum lipid levels are not consistently seen with GH administration. GH replacement therapy has also been shown to consistently reduce hsCRP levels in both men and women with hypopituitarism.

Bone Density - The potential role of GH in the maintenance of the skeleton has recently been investigated. GH is known to stimulate osteoblast proliferation and thymidine incorporation in vitro. Furthermore, GH stimulates systemic and local production of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), also anabolic to bone. In one study, significant increases of 5% and 4% were demonstrated in spinal and cortical bone density over 12 months of therapy in GH-deficient adults (4). It thus appears that GH administration may act to reverse the osteopenia present in the GH-deficient patient.

Cardiovascular Function - Improvements in exercise capacity and cardiac function have been demonstrated among GH-deficient patients receiving GH replacement in several recent studies. Such patients show increased oxygen uptake and power output during cycle ergometry associated with increased skeletal muscle mass and improved cardiac function. Echocardiography has shown that left ventricular mass index, fractional shortening and fiber shortening velocity all improve after 6 months of low dose GH therapy.

Side Effects Associated with Low-Dose GH Replacement - The dose of rhGH is an important consideration in the therapy of acquired GH-deficiency. With low-dose treatment that results in IGF-1 levels in the mid-normal range, side effects can include mild edema, exacerbation of carpal tunnell syndome and/or exacerbation of glucose intolerance.

Future Directions - Growth hormone deficiency is an important cause of excess morbidity and even mortality. Evidence from a number of smaller studies indicates that GH replacement will improve body composition, lipid metabolism, bone density, cardiovascular function and psychological well being. Important issues remaining are the precise clinical definition of partial vs. complete GH deficiency in such patients and clarifying the best tests to make this diagnosis. In addition, it is unclear whether some of the observed beneficial effects reflect pharmacological GH therapy rather than physiologic GH replacement. Nevertheless, it is apparent that small doses, unassociated with sequelae of GH excess, may suffice to achieve the desired metabolic results. Definitive recommendations on dosage and the long term effects of GH therapy, particularly on cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, will be determined by the prospective studies now underway at the MGH and other centers around the country.

Updated 1/14/15 BS and KKM