Research that tries to make kids taller will resume

June 29, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

The National Institutes of Health has resumed recruiting healthy children for a controversial experiment in which researchers hope to make short children taller by injecting them with genetically engineered human growth hormone.

Some medical experts say they are troubled by the research because it treats a child's height -- so often a matter of emotional bias, peer pressure or parental vanity -- as a medical disability, while those who support it say that making someone a few inches taller with hormone injections is no more harmful than breast implants, liposuction or other conventional cosmetic surgery.

However, treating physical characteristics -- often the target of social prejudices -- as diseases that can be cured with expensive drugs or surgical procedures is disturbing to some bioethics experts.

"If the disease is being short, then half the people in America have a disease," said George Annas, director of the law, medicine and ethics program at the Boston University School of Public Health. "Once you define something as a disease, you assume a right to treat it."

"The experiment gives us a peek under the curtain of genetic engineering," says Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. "The desirability of the trait is in the eye of the beholder. Are gender or height diseases? Is there no limit to parental choice or consumer demand?"

Dr. Bernadine Healy, outgoing director of NIH, had suspended the research last year while it was reviewed by an independent safety panel. After the panel endorsed the experiment's scientific merit, she gave permission last month for the experiment to resume.

A group of 3,000 physicians called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends has threatened to seek an injunction in U.S. District court today to stop the experiment.

"It is the first time the NIH has exposed healthy children to risk in order to make a scientific point," said foundation director Jeremy Rifkin. "I have no objection to medical uses of growth hormone, but they have reclassified a social issue as a medical problem. The NIH has no mandate to experiment on children simply because they are victims of discrimination."

NIH officials say the research is needed to judge the safety of a drug that today is being prescribed by pediatricians to as many as 15,000 children, at least half of whom are healthy and who get growth hormone only because they are significantly shorter than their playmates.

Among other things, the researchers want to determine whether extra growth hormone does indeed make a child grow taller or just faster.

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