Nov. 3, 2008 -- A daily dose of an oral drug that stimulates release of growth hormone helps retain muscle in healthy older adults, reversing part of the normal aging process, a new study shows.
Researchers at the University of Virginia conducted a two-year study of 65 healthy older adults, giving some an oral ghrelin mimetic, or MK-677, and others a placebo.
Volunteers between 60 and 81 who received MK-677, a drug provided by Merck Research Laboratories, experienced increased growth hormone levels to those seen in young adults.
Michael Thorner, MB, BS, DSc, and Ralf Nass, MD, of the University of Virginia, tell WebMD that blood sugar increased in people taking the new drug, and the body's sensitivity to insulin decreased slightly.
"This is an expected effect of enhancing growth hormone secretion. The changes are very mild and are unlikely to be of clinical significance in subjects who are not diabetic," Thorner says.
The purpose of the study, published in the November issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, was to determine whether stimulating growth hormone altered body composition -- and it did, Thorner tells WebMD.
"They also gained muscle mass in the limbs, which declines in the normal aging process," Thorner says. "On MK-677, they didn't lose any muscle mass. The limb fat increased as well. Appetite was enhanced. We were very surprised."
Body Weight and Body Fat
At 12 months, body weight increased 1.76 pounds in the placebo group vs. 5.95 pounds in those taking the test drug. Total body fat did not differ significantly. Quality-of-life measures also did not differ significantly between the two groups.
Nass says the goal of researchers is to determine definitively "whether there are some interventions that could help with some aspects of the aging process."
Thorner says there's no hope that the Merck pill will hit the market soon because "we need a study that would involve thousands of people."
He cautions against "hyperbole" about the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, but says "preventing people getting more frail could be important. You'd have to take the pill, exercise, and have the right diet."
Lawrence Phillips, MD, a professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta, also cautioned against interpreting the results too optimistically, but calls the results "promising."
The pill "seemed to do the things that growth hormone given as an injection does," he tells WebMD. "Since [the pill] does have the same kinds of benefits and generally was safe, this is promising."
Thorner says if such a pill ever hits the market, he says, it'll be good news because a rising population of frail people "is going to become a major burden on the country."
Such a pill "potentially" could result in preventing older people from becoming so frail, Thorner says.
"If I look into a crystal ball 50 years from now, people will be taking drugs like this in the same way they take vitamins today," Thorner tells WebMD. "We hope this will extend health, the amount of time one lives in a healthy way. This has great potential for baby boomers."