At the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine's annual conference in Chicago last August, Stan and Naomi Loomis were riding high.
The founders of Signature Pharmacies were tan, fit and happy. Their business was growing so rapidly they were able to purchase prime real estate in the conference's exhibit hall, filling the space with a gleaming product booth so large it had to be trucked to town in three crates. A huge photo of the husband and wife lovingly embracing each other was projected from one wall. Walking around the booth, Naomi wore a diamond on one hand that looked to be five carats, minimum.
They were open with me about their success -- not bragging, just very matter-of-fact. Company revenues, they said, had grown from $5 million in 2003 to $9 million the year after that, $20 million in 2005, and a projected $30 million for 2006. Their clients, they said, were primarily boomers trying to look and feel young again, women wanting custom blends for estrogen replacement, and children suffering from dwarfism.
Clearly, the Orlando, Fla., company had not been hurt by scandals in recent years involving athletes and performance-enhancing drugs. On the contrary, they said.
"It's causing this thing to grow more, not less," Stan said.
"Bad press is actually good press for us," Naomi added.
"You'd think that every time they say 'Barry Bonds,' sales would go down," Stan said. "They don't. They go up. I have to give the media credit. They create a story of interest and then people go out there and research [the drugs]."
You have to wonder how the Loomises feel about Bonds and the media now. On Tuesday, they were arrested and paraded before a media throng after their headquarters were raided by authorities who suspect they might have been complicit in an illegal dispensing of steroids and human growth hormone. Their clients have included some athletes, sources told ESPN The Magazine.
The raids in Orlando and elsewhere effectively mark the formal start of the government's full-scale assault on compounding pharmacies, which differ from traditional pharmacies by creating custom creams and other products tailored to the needs of individual patients. They have become major players in the anti-aging industry, and a growing threat to big pharmaceutical companies whose drugs often cost more.
Still, the margins for compounded products are considerable. Compounding pharmacies buy raw chemicals -- such as testosterone and growth hormone -- from brokers and build the custom compounds on site, a production process that leaves lots of room for profit.
Clients have been more than happy to pay the price, Naomi said.
"One of the things that will make our growth hormone different from a manufactured version is we have a long-acting growth hormone, meaning you only have to inject it once a week," she said. "We can also make it in any size vial."
"When compounding, we're trying to make the purest substance we can, so when the patient takes a product they're getting the full benefit without getting excessive doses," Stan explained.
For athletes seeking an edge or just the means to recover from injury, such features are obviously desirable. But the Loomises, who are both licensed pharmacists, insisted that they did not know of athletes placing orders for drugs with their company.
"As far as athletes, most of our patients don't walk up to the counter," Naomi said. "We're FedExing it [to clients] so we don't actually see the person. As far as names coming through, famous athletes, we don't see them. I mean, there are a couple, but ..."
"It's a very small number," Stan said, interjecting. "I don't know of any active athletes. It's the weekend warrior where most of it is going."
The New York grand jury looking into the case reportedly was focused on distribution channels via the Internet, in which orders are placed from renegade doctors writing bogus prescriptions for profit. Athletes reportedly used fake names on orders placed with another compounding pharmacy swept up in the investigation, Applied Pharmacy of Mobile, Ala.
When I spoke with the Loomises, they knew they were under law enforcement scrutiny, as Food and Drug Administration agents had confiscated some of the drugs for evaluation. The investigation was spearheaded by the New York Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, which worked in concert with a federal task force and local authorities in Orlando.
"I think that some of their business was legitimate," said Lt. Carl Metzger, commander of the Orlando Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, adding that "much of it was illegal."
The Loomises, who have not commented since their arrest, insisted last August they had done nothing wrong, even going so far as to check the diagnoses of doctors submitting the prescriptions. They said they had no interest in serving athletes, who more than other clients draw the attention of law enforcement officials because of their high profile.
"Athletes aren't likely to go through the regular channels to get an anabolic steroid because there's a [pharmacy] record," Stan said. "The pharmacy is going to see it. You can just go to Mexico instead. We're telling the FDA that you need to go into the gyms. Pharmacies are easy; we're right there, and we have records. There's very little out there going on. I have never seen an athlete get major doses at a pharmacy; they're afraid to.
"We don't want to sell anabolic [steroids to athletes]. None of us want to. All we want to sell is hormone replacement."
Now, they might not be able to sell anything to anyone again.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.