updated 8/3/2008 2:23:38 PM ET 2008-08-03T18:23:38

A hormone better known for illicit use among athletes can help treat troublesome complications from the AIDS virus, but with potentially risky side effects, a small study found.

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Low-dose injections of human growth hormone, HGH, reduced fat deposits around internal abdominal organs by about 10 percent.

In addition, hormone shots lowered blood pressure and levels of blood fats called triglycerides. But they also resulted in elevated blood sugar levels.

HIV patients often develop fat deposits and high levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar, which put them at risk for heart problems. Doctors believe this results from HIV drugs and a faulty immune system caused by the infection.

Medicines can treat some of these complications but fat buildups, which can affect other parts of the body, are harder to fix, although a healthy diet and lots of exercise can help.

‘Not a panacea’
The study results show that human growth hormone could be useful for HIV patients with abdominal fat accumulations and normal blood sugar levels, although it's "not a panacea," said study co-author Dr. Steven Grinspoon of Massachusetts General Hospital.

He called the approach experimental and said new AIDS drugs with fewer side effects are needed.

While there were fewer side effects with lower doses, Emory University AIDS expert Dr. Jeffrey Lennox called the results "disappointing." He said they suggest that hormone shots have limited use at best for treating HIV-associated fat abnormalities.

The study appears in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association and was among reports prepared for presentation Sunday at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.

The study involved 55 patients with the AIDS virus who also had low levels of naturally occurring human growth hormone, a condition that is relatively common among HIV patients with abnormal fat deposits. Half gave themselves daily hormone shots, the other got dummy medicine for 18 months.

Manufactured versions of HGH have been used by some athletes, body builders and anti-aging enthusiasts to enhance muscle growth and reduce fat. However, its only approved use is for muscle wasting in AIDS patients and conditions that impair growth.

EMD Serono Inc. provided HGH for the study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Grinspoon has worked as a consultant for Serono.

In earlier research, Grinspoon and colleagues used high doses to successfully treat abnormal HIV-related fat problems but the risks including tissue swelling outweighed the benefits.

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