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A Drug's Promise (or Not) of Youth

Growth hormone is the anti-aging industry's most potent and controversial weapon. Some say it works wonders. Some say it could shorten your life.

July 09, 2006|Brian Alexander | Brian Alexander is a contributing editor at Glamour and writes for MSNBC, Outside and others. He is the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion."

I have traveled to the Palm Springs Life Extension Institute in search of Dr. Edmund Chein. Instead I find Tiffany Caranci. Tiffany is 20 years old and looks exactly how you might expect a 20-year-old named Tiffany to look: platform heels, low-slung skirt, hair streaked blond and black. She's brazenly sexy, and so very young.

I am a man and not very young. I have entered that disorienting neverland of middle age where you can't tell if women like Tiffany smile because you remind them of their fathers or because they think you're hot. I'm pretty sure Tiffany is smiling at me as I walk into Chein's clinic because she's a receptionist and gets paid to smile, but my ego scouts for any sign from her to justify the voice in my head that's saying: "You've still got it, brother." This neediness, of course, proves that I don't have it, and I don't mind admitting that right now I'd like it back. Well done, Tiffany.

I've come to meet the good doctor, but he is elusive, lying low on the advice of his lawyer. I don't leave though. The clinic sees, maybe, two people on a busy day, and it is so quiet I can almost hear my youth hissing out of me. So when Candice Dillon, Chein's 24-year-old director of new-patient relations, emerges from somewhere behind Tiffany and offers to show me just how far gone I am, I figure why not?

She ushers me to a small room beyond the reception desk and hands me off to still another pretty young woman who whips out a tourniquet to plump my vein. She pricks me with a needle and begins filling three vials that will be sent off to a lab and tested for an array of hormones.

The Life Extension Institute, founded in 1994, is built on a simple theory. Dr. Neal Rouzier, who owns a similar clinic in the same building as Chein's, once explained it this way: "Losing hormones is nature's way of helping us die." If we top them off to the levels of 25-year-olds, we will not only stay buff but extend our life spans.

It is growth hormone, along with testosterone and estrogen, to which the field of modern anti-aging medicine owes its existence. Chein, an early adopter of GH, believes in its magic so strongly that he has staked his living, and possibly his freedom, on promoting it. Inside his clinic, in a drab stucco-and-wood professional building within walking distance of the Palm Springs airport, hang a few photographs that explain why. Intended as visual testimonials, the images show an elderly couple posing like bodybuilders. She wears a bikini. He flexes on a podium, his butt cheeks proudly clenching a disturbingly bright blue thong. I wonder if it was fear of such displays that years ago led Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono to ban thong-wearing in public. But I get the message. No matter what my age, I can go back.

A week before my visit to the institute, I had received an e-mail relaying a glitch in my plan to talk with Chein. The California Medical Board had recently put him on five years' probation and, apparently wary of getting in deeper trouble, he would speak to me only if the following notice prefaced this article:

"This is not a paid advertisement. Everything expressed by Dr. Chein is strictly his personal opinion and is not meant to attract patients."

That didn't mean Chein wasn't eager to see me. "I am sure you will do an excellent job in showing Dr. Chein's amazing work here at the clinic and the great advancements he has made in the anti-aging community," Dillon wrote in an e-mail. But in the end, Chein backed out of our meeting. It seems the federal government is after him again. The Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating him, Dillon explained, for allegedly illegally exporting growth hormone. His lawyer says he is not guilty. In 2000, Chein was charged in federal court with smuggling growth hormone, but the case was dismissed.

The federal scrutiny might not be entirely unwelcome, because it plays into Chein's self-image as a persecuted prophet, a Moses on a quest to lead medicine out of the wilderness. "God," he tells me in an e-mail after my visit to the clinic, "wanted me to discover the importance of hormones in aging and to promote the mission to the world."

The use of hormones to curb aging dates to at least the late 1800s, when Frenchman Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard, then 72, injected himself with a mixture of ground-up testicle, semen and blood from dogs. Afterward, he claimed, he could bound up stairs. Other scientists and physicians tried similar experiments, but by the start of World War II, it was clear that they didn't work, and that injecting people with bits of animal gonads was a bad idea. Life-extensionists moved on to other approaches, everything from dietary supplements to meditation. They even created the ultimate bailout option, cryonics. But most realized that what they really needed was a legal, powerful drug.

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