NEWSWEEK – Five people may have “caught” Alzheimer’s after receiving growth hormone from human cadavers during childhood.
Between 1959 and 1985, over 1,800 patients in the U.K. were treated with human growth hormone extracted from the pituitary glands of dead bodies.
The hormone, which is synthetically produced today, was mostly administered to children to treat severe short stature, often caused by a deficiency of this hormone.
In 1985, one of these patients died from a rare brain disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease—a fatal condition caused by an abnormal infectious protein called a prion.
A prion can be transmitted between individuals and cause abnormal folding in important cellular proteins, particularly those in the brain, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This abnormal protein folding can lead to brain damage and progressive neurodegeneration that, in the case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is invariably fatal.
Over the subsequent years, more patients who had received the growth hormone treatment began to fall ill with the condition, and the cadaver-derived treatment was withdrawn.
However, on closer inspection, many of the patients who developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease also showed protein clumps in their brains, which is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
And while the symptoms of Creutzfeldt-Jakob would have masked those of Alzheimer’s, some archived batches of the human-derived growth factor still contain measurable quantities of these Alzheimer’s-associated proteins.
Now, in a new study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers from University College London (UCL) identified five individuals who had received human-derived growth hormone as children and years later developed symptoms consistent with early-onset dementia.
These individuals, aged between 38 and 55, met the diagnostic criteria for Alzheimer’s disease, with progressive impairment in two or more cognitive domains severe enough to affect their everyday life …