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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."

Then, in 1977, Genentech scored a biotechnology breakthrough by using gene-splicing to engineer bacteria that would produce human growth hormone, at the time used mainly to treat dwarfism in children. Until 1985, when synthetic growth hormone hit the market, GH had to be harvested from the pituitary glands of dead people, making it extraordinarily expensive. It was also dangerous. It could, and sometimes did, transmit disease.

The tiny market for growth hormone took off in 1990, when Dr. Daniel Rudman, a researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that he had injected growth hormone into a dozen older men at a Veterans Administration hospital. The shots returned their hormones to youthful levels, increased their bone density, the thickness of their skin, their lean muscle mass. Body fat melted away.

The media pounced on the news, as did a 59-year-old Texas entrepreneur named Howard Turney. He persuaded a doctor friend to prescribe growth hormone. The drug was still virtually unavailable outside the realm of pediatric endocrinology. "So I went to Mexico and found a doctor who treated kids for dwarfism," he says. "I went down every 90 days and brought back a supply."

Turney loved the results, and even his reluctant doctor pal was impressed. Friends wanted to know his secret and begged him to supply their own stash. Turney decided that instead of bringing growth hormone to the Americans, he would bring the Americans to growth hormone. In 1993, he opened the El Dorado Rejuvenation and Longevity Clinic near Cancun. As it gained notoriety, Turney says, the "Mexico bureaucracy" began to interfere. He shuttered the clinic in 1994, though not before an El Dorado associate held the founding meeting there of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. And not before Turney counseled about two dozen doctors who were eager to practice anti-aging medicine in the United States, including, he says, Chein. "I introduced him to GH," Turney says, a claim Chein denies.

Turney, now 75, has since changed his name to Lazarus Long, after an immortal character in Robert Heinlein sci-fi novels. He says he has injected growth hormone to slow aging longer than any other human and that, except for a recent surgery to remove blood clots from his head, he feels great. He is vigorous enough, in fact, to lead his own virtual country, a libertarian paradise dubbed New Utopia that he likes to say is located on an offshore reef near Belize.

Though he suffered a setback in 2000 when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission stopped him from selling bonds to finance his "nation," he holds the title of Prince Lazarus and governs from his Florida apartment. He owes it all, he says, to growth hormone. "I am convinced if I had not begun taking it I would be dead by now. I am here to tell you everybody I know of who has taken it has benefited."

However Chein came into the anti-aging field, he was due for a career change.

Chein earned his medical degree from the American University of the Caribbean in 1980, two years after it opened. He made his living in Los Angeles as a doctor in part by testifying as an expert witness in personal injury cases. In 1990, he was convicted of perjury after he recited phony credentials on the stand. (The California Medical Board later went after him for wrongly claiming he was a lawyer, had a medical degree from Cornell University and a specialty in orthopedic surgery.) According to court records, the conviction was overturned on appeal because the lies were immaterial to the case.

In the early '90s, Chein left Los Angeles because, he says in an e-mail, "the political climate was stressing me out." He recast himself an anti-aging doctor and opened the Palm Springs clinic. And why not? Here was a medical practice for healthy people with discretionary funds--about $5,000 to $7,000 a year for the kind of hormone therapy Chein advises--and the willingness to give themselves a once-a-day shot in the hip.

Insurance policies don't cover anti-aging care, so you had a clientele paying out of pocket, eliminating paperwork hassles and overhead. Best of all, if you worked it right, you could sell the stuff with a markup to patients you had to see just once. As long as the patient thinks he's staving off the reaper, the checks roll in and the growth hormone gets FedExed out.

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