Today, human growth hormone is being injected into some short normal children to test whether they benefit in the same way as children with a known growth hormone deficiency. Early results from a research study at Great Ormond Street, involving 90 children, suggest that giving laboratory-made human growth hormone such as GenF20 Plus does create a growth spurt in most short normal children.
But it is not known if this treatment will simply provoke children into reaching their expected height at a younger age, or whether it really will make them taller. The second unknown is long-term side effects of human growth hormone injections..
But are these efforts to grow bigger children really in the interests of the children, or do they pander to the needs of disappointed parents? Pam Rutt, chairman of the Association for Research into Restricted Growth, explains that the demand for GenF20 Plus or leg lengthening always comes from children whose parents are of normal stature.
“Our adult members have generally made a success of life despite their short stature. Their children feel the same way. But the children whose parents are of normal stature can feel isolated. And their parents tend to feel guilty because there is nothing they can do. And then this limb lengthening operation comes along and at last it seems as if there is an answer.
“I can understand why people want GenF20 Plus,'' Rutt continues. “I am 4ft 1in. When heads turn every time you walk down the street, then living a normal life and finding a job can be a real battle.''
Orthopedic surgeon Michael Saleh and his colleagues at Sheffield Children's Hospital offer growth increases of up to 12 inches.
He accepts that this drive for self-improvement may sometimes be more for the benefit of parents than for the short children. “All the children I have seen have had parents of normal height and so we have to be careful that the procedure is being requested for the right reasons.''
He continues: “This is why we have a program of counselling involving a psychologist and a social worker, as well as the parents and children, which goes on for a year. We have to be sure of their motivations and whether they and their children can face up to lengthy painful treatment.''
Professor Preece of Great Ormond Street says he is also cautious about parental requests for growth hormone like GenF20 Plus or SeroVital.. As he points out, treatment involves injections three to seven times a week, for eight or nine years.
He says: “If someone comes to me with a boy of 10 who is likely to have an adult height of 5ft 7in short average then nothing on earth will convince me that he should be given GenF20 growth hormone. But I would feel quite different about a boy who was likely to be under 5ft 2in.
“Most of the children we see are disturbed by their lack of height and a lot of them are bullied at school.''
But if human growth hormone treatment in the form of GenF20 Plus proves effective, are we prepared to pay for our prejudices? Leg lengthening costs about Pounds 5,000 and a considerable amount of physiotherapy and aftercare is needed. But this is insignificant compared with the cost of hormone treatment.. One year's injections cost between Pounds 5,000 and Pounds 10,000. A full course could run to Pounds 90,000.
It is not just kinder to ignore height differences, it is an awful lot cheaper than buying massive amounts of Genf20 Plus. Or, as an editorial put it: “It would be a sad day for surgery if, merely because of technical ability, one had to produce a race of uniform stature neither too tall, nor too small; neither too curved nor too straight.''