Puberty Blockers Can Help Transgender Youth. Is There a Cost?


Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups wrote to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, urging the Justice Department to investigate growing threats of violence against physicians and hospitals that provide transgender medical treatment to adolescents. As more Republicans frame the treatment as child abuse, some doctors have become wary of discussing their work for fear of becoming targets.

More than a dozen doctors declined to be interviewed for this article, and several who spoke to The Times — some who support treatment, others who question it — asked not to be named.

The climate could have a chilling effect on research, said Dr. Natalie Nokoff, assistant professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Colorado, who recently conducted a soon-to-be-published study showing that a longer treatment period on puberty blockers was associated with a lower bone density.

“It’s leading to concerns that people’s well-intentioned scientific research could be misconstrued” and exploited for political gain, she said.

The prospect of such an outcome is disheartening for the families of Emma Basques, Ms. Chavira and the teen in New York. Despite their differing experiences, they share the same hopes for transgender medicine: less vitriol, more science.


Methodology

The analysis commissioned by The Times examined the findings of seven observational studies from the Netherlands, England and Canada, documenting the association between puberty blockers and bone density in about 500 adolescents.

In each study, bone density was measured at the spine and the hip using Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA scan. The analysis looked at group means, because not every study released individual person data. Each study’s findings were weighted based on its number of participants.

The change in bone density while adolescents were on blockers was observed to be zero. The analysis also showed that the adolescents’ Z-scores, a measure of bone density that is benchmarked to peers, consistently fell during treatment with blockers.

The studies included are:

“Bone Mass in Young Adulthood Following Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone Analog Treatment and Cross-Sex Hormone Treatment in Adolescents With Gender Dysphoria,” Klink et. al, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2015

“Effect of Pubertal Suppression and Cross-Sex Hormone Therapy on Bone Turnover Markers and Bone Mineral Apparent Density (BMAD) in Transgender Adolescents,” Vlot et. al, Bone, 2017 

“The Effect of GnRH Analogue Treatment on Bone Mineral Density in Young Adolescents With Gender Dysphoria: Findings From a Large National Cohort,” Joseph et. al, Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2019

“Physical Changes, Laboratory Parameters and Bone Mineral Density During Testosterone Treatment in Adolescents With Gender Dysphoria,” Stoffers et. al, The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2019

“Bone Development in Transgender Adolescents Treated With GnRH Analogues and Subsequent Gender-Affirming Hormones,” Schagen et. al, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2020

“Short-Term Outcomes of Pubertal Suppression in a Selected Cohort of 12- to 15-Year-Old Young People With Persistent Gender Dysphoria in the U.K.,” Carmichael et. al, PLOS One, 2021

“Pubertal Suppression, Bone Mass and Body Composition in Youth With Gender Dysphoria,” Navabi et. al, Pediatrics, 2021




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