- Barnaby Brownsell developed a “sizable” penis and pubic hair at the age of 2.
- Doctors told his family that this was caused by his father’s prolonged exposure to testosterone gel.
- Her mother launched a campaign to get the gel makers to include an important health warning.
Whenever Erica Brownsell brought her 2-year-old Barnaby to the play area, other parents would ask why a child her size was still drinking from a bottle.
On one occasion, he said, a stranger remarked that he “looked like a little man.” He said some people had called him “Viking” or “Samson” because of his muscular build.
But it was only after Brownsell saw pubic hair around Barnaby’s “sizable” penis that she seriously worried.
“I knew it wasn’t normal,” the 43-year-old mom told Insider, noting that her baby looked like a 4 or 5-year-old. “She would have massive, sustained erections and her height and weight were off the charts.”
Brownsell, of Brighton, England, added: “He weighed 26 pounds at the age of 1 and gained over two pounds every month between the ages of 12 and 18 months. He wasn’t fat, just muscle.”
Dr Tony Hulse, a pediatric endocrinologist at Everlina London Children’s Hospital in the UK, was somewhat baffled when Sosna consulted him in March.
Barnaby had as much testosterone in his system as an adult male
Blood tests showed Barnaby had abnormally high testosterone levels – as much as a grown man – when it should be negligible for a boy his age. He also had the bone density of a 4.5-year-old boy.
Further tests ruled out the most common causes, such as an endocrine tumor or a congenital disorder affecting the adrenal glands.
“It was very scary,” Brownsell said. “Nobody seemed to know what was going on.”
Then one of Hulse’s colleagues made a suggestion. He wondered if Barnaby had been exposed to artificial testosterone treatment for adults for long periods.
Hulse told Insider that he emailed Sosna to ask if he ever came into contact with the drug.
“My husband has been using testosterone gel for several years,” Brownsell said, explaining that Barnaby’s father, Peter, was born with a complex testicular condition.
He said they were “shocked” to learn that the generous amount of topical gel he applied every day may have caused Barnaby’s problems.
“I spent two years of my life thinking that I was protecting and caring for him when in fact his own environment was contaminated,” Brownsell said.
According to Brownsell, a career consultant, her husband used the product – branded Testogel in the UK and AndroGel for the equivalent type of drug in America – on her skin to help correct her testosterone deficiency.
Dr. Benjamin Udoka Nwosu, chief of pediatric endocrinology at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York, told Insider that the absorption of testosterone gel or cream – typically applied to the upper arms and shoulders – “does not is never complete “.
Testosterone gel could be risky for children if they are exposed to the drug
“There is testosterone left on the skin, even hours after application,” Nwosu said. “Family members and other individuals who have close contact with the male patient are at risk of direct exposure.”
The doctor said testosterone “enters the bloodstream” even when the patient is wearing clothes. “Studies have shown that even if you cover the site with a shirt, 40 to 48 percent of the hormone can be transferred,” Nwosu said.
He said that if exposure “occurs over a long period of time,” the amount of testosterone can be harmful. The high levels are especially dangerous for children, Nwosu said, because they can enter puberty years earlier than their peers.
Symptoms, he said, include acne, pubic and axillary hair, and oversized reproductive organs.
Brownsell said she and her artist spouse took turns taking care of Barnaby while the other worked. His father often observed him in the morning. Her shift would begin after she applied Testogel, her wife said, before describing her 65-year-old father as a “practical dad.”
Hulse told Insider he was “99.99% sure” that Brownsell’s hormone treatment triggered Barnaby’s puberty at an extraordinarily young age.
Barnaby’s specialist told his parents that the boy’s chronological age would eventually “recover” his body
The doctor, who strongly advises people to use disposable gloves when applying the gel, said he was relieved to tell Barnaby’s parents that his chronological age would eventually “make up” his body. He explained that the boy’s testosterone levels would return to normal now that his father had switched to testosterone injections.
“Barnaby will stop growing that quickly,” Hulse said, adding that the problem was identified relatively early and “hopefully it hasn’t caused any long-term damage.”
It is now supporting Brownsell’s campaign to raise awareness of the risk to children of testosterone gel. He wants to see an important notice introduced in the UK on Testogel packaging, along with specific instructions on the package leaflet. AndroGel in the United States has received a boxed warning since 2009 because more than 20 cases like Barnaby’s have been reported to the Federal Drug Administration. The adverse reactions led to a child needing surgery, according to the FDA.
Insider has reached out to Besins, the European pharmaceutical company that makes the gel, for comment and is awaiting a response.
Meanwhile, Brownsell said Barnaby’s “avoidable” conditions have taken their toll.
“The toxin actually distorted his appearance,” he said. “We will never know how she must have been at the age of 2.”