James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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The monkey gland secret

Rejuvenation treatment once attracted the rich and famous even the Pope but was later dismissed as trickery. Now it is being reconsidered in medical circles, Dr James Le Fanu explains.

“Youth is the one thing worth having”, Lord Henry told Dorian Gray in the Oscar Wilde novel. “It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight or springtime. It cannot be questioned. It has its own right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”

Unfortunately, for those aged 40 or over, any promise the New Year holds is tinged with melancholy, one step further away from the springtime of youth towards decrepitude, to creaking joints and wrinkled skin, slower reaction times and furred up arteries.

If only there were some simple rejuvenation remedy that could throw this process into reverse without having to forfeit one’s soul, like the hapless Dorian Gray.

But rejuvenation, so fashionable in the middle decades of the century, has been discredited, reduced to a footnote of medical history in which quacks and fraudsters preyed on the vain and the gullible.

Or has it? Perhaps surprisingly, the reputations of two of its richest and most successful practitioners, Serge Voronoff and Paul Niehans, have been at least partly rehabilitated.

At the peak of his fame in the 1930s, Professor Voronoff, a Russian physician, was doing ten monkey gland operations a week in which three thin slices of monkey testicle were grafted (with silk stitches) on to the inside of the scrotum. He was, as a result, a very wealthy man. He occupied the whole of the first floor of one of Paris’s most expensive hotels, surrounded by a retinue of chauffeurs, valets, personal secretaries and two mistresses.

It was an impressive achievement for someone whose claim to success rested on just one book containing portrait photographs of patients before and after receiving their grafts. The changes he described were similar to those in the ageing sheep which had been the subject of his early experiments. "Like my old rams, they become young in their gait, full of vitality and energy."

A 65-year-old man even required a second graft after two years, having been "over-prodigal of the vital energy supplied by his first one".

The following decade, those seeking rejuvenation made their way to Professor Paul Niehans in his mansion overlooking Lake Geneva, a house that was stuffed with Italian and Dutch Old Masters and furnished with tapestries and carpets which had once belonged to Napoleon. The names of his patients read like a Who’s Who of the rich and famous, including Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich and Lilian Gish, Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward. Tito, de Gaulle, Churchill and the Windsors are believed to have been on the list.

And there was the greatest catch of all, Pope Pius XII, who, in the summer of 1953, sought Professor Niehans’s help for his unexplained chronic poor health. For his services the professor was invited to join the Vatican’s select group of scientists, the Pontifical Academy.

Professor Niehans’s rejuvenation technique involved 12 injections of cells taken from lamb embryos which in his book, Introduction to Cell Therapy, he maintains migrate to the different organs of the body. So, foetal brain cells bolster a fading intellect, foetal heart cells strengthen the heart muscle, foetal kidney cells keep the urine flowing, and so on.

A French aristocrat, Cornel Lumiere, described the treatment as: “Not a particularly pleasant experience, but it mattered little. For years to come I would feel grateful for those injections. Their benefits are too great, too good for anyone to forgo.”

In time both of these rejuvenation remedies fell into disrepute. Professor Voronoff’s reputation was badly damaged by detailed scientific studies of a French veterinarian who claimed to demonstrate that the transplanted monkey testicles were rapidly overwhelmed by the body’s own cells: "Une zone d’invasion cellulaire massive."

In 1952, a distinguished British surgeon, Kenneth Walker, described the work as "no better than the methods of witches and magicians". And, in another memorable phrase, the monkey grafts were swiftly dismissed as "nothing more nor less than a piece of dead meat put in the wrong place".

As for Professor Niehans, he lived long enough to hear himself denounced as a pious fraud by Dr Gerald Dorman, President of the American Medical Association, who argued: "He carefully selects patients who are likely to respond to treatment which includes rest, good care and excludes liquor and tobacco. That is enough to ensure that many will feel better. But there is absolutely no scientific evidence his cellular therapy has any value."

And yet many, probably most, of those who had these treatments reported a remarkable improvement in wellbeing. It seems unlikely that Professors Voronoff and Niehans would have amassed their vast personal fortunes merely on the basis of a placebo response to useless therapies.

In November 1991 an editorial in The Lancet suggested that the file on Voronoff’s work be reopened and in particular that "the Medical Research Council should fund further studies on monkey glands".

The fate of organs transplanted from one species to another is inevitably one of rejection, but perhaps the testes are different. Without using immunosuppressant drugs, researchers from Lanzhou in China have successfully transplanted the steroid-secreting adrenal glands, so perhaps, the editorial observes, "any organ whose predominant function is the synthesis of steroids (which includes the testes) might be less liable to rejection than others". Nowadays doctors treating the "male menopause" with synthetic testosterone claim similar results to those of Professor Voronoff. Professor R.D.Greenblatt, of the University of Georgia, has found "fair-to-excellent results in two thirds of patients with amelioration of fatigue and enhancement of general wellbeing".

Ayear before The Lancet editorial, Dr Daniel Rudman, of the Medical College of Wisconsin, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine a study on the effects of human-growth hormone on men over 60 which similarly appears to vindicate Professor Niehans.

After six months of treatment Dr Rudman’s patients appeared ten to 20 years younger, with stronger muscles, less fatty tissue and better-nourished skin. "There was a dramatic change in physique; the men had the appearance of being much fitter and in better condition."

Growth hormone is secreted by the pituitary, a gland at the base of the brain, and promotes the strength and viability of tissues generally. One of the 12 injections in Professor Niehans’s treatment contained ground-up foetal pituitary gland packed with this reinvigorating hormone which probably produced the beneficial effects that so many reported.

Professors Voronoff and Niehans thus seem to deserve at least a qualified apology from the orthodox medical establishment who were so dismissive of their work. Now that the scientific basis of their results has been elucidated, perhaps many more will seek to follow the example of Dorian Gray and stay youthful with injections of growth hormone or testosterone.

Copyright: Times Newspapers Ltd