The No. 1 maker, Roche subsidiary Genentech, had nearly $400 million in HGH sales in the U.S. last year, up an inflation-adjusted two-thirds from 2005. Pfizer and Eli Lilly were second and third with $300 million and $220 million in sales, respectively, according to IMS Health. Pfizer now gets more revenue from its HGH brand, Genotropin, than from Zoloft, its well-known depression medicine that lost patent protection.
On their face, the numbers make no sense to the recognized hormone doctors known as endocrinologists who provide legitimate HGH treatment to a small number of patients.
Endocrinologists estimate there are fewer than 45,000 U.S. patients who might legitimately take HGH. They would be expected to use roughly 180,000 prescriptions or refills each year, given that typical patients get three months' worth of HGH at a time, according to doctors and distributors.
Yet U.S. pharmacies last year supplied almost twice that much HGH — 340,000 orders — according to AP's analysis of IMS Health data.
While doctors say more than 90 percent of legitimate patients are children with stunted growth, 40 percent of 442 U.S. side-effect cases tied to HGH over the last year involved people age 18 or older, according to an AP analysis of FDA data. The average adult's age in those cases was 53, far beyond the prime age for sports. The oldest patients were in their 80s.
Some of these medical records even give explicit hints of use to combat aging, justifying treatment with reasons like fatigue, bone thinning and "off-label," which means treatment of an unapproved condition
Even Medicare, the government health program for older Americans, allowed 22,169 HGH prescriptions in 2010, a five-year increase of 78 percent, according to data released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in response to an AP public records request.
"There's no question: a lot gets out," said hormone specialist Dr. Mark Molitch of Northwestern University, who helped write medical standards meant to limit HGH treatment to legitimate patients.
And those figures don't include HGH sold directly by doctors without prescriptions at scores of anti-aging medical practices and clinics around the country. Those numbers could only be tallied by drug makers, who have declined to say how many patients they supply and for what conditions.
First marketed in 1985 for children with stunted growth, HGH was soon misappropriated by adults intent on exploiting its modest muscle- and bone-building qualities. Congress limited HGH distribution to the handful of rare conditions in an extraordinary 1990 law, overriding the generally unrestricted right of doctors to prescribe medicines as they see fit.
Despite the law, illicit HGH spread around the sports world in the 1990s, making deep inroads into bodybuilding, college athletics, and professional leagues from baseball to cycling. The even larger banned market among older adults has flourished more recently.
FDA regulations ban the sale of HGH as an anti-aging drug. In fact, since 1990, prescribing it for things like weight loss and strength conditioning has been punishable by 5 to 10 years in prison.
Steve Kleppe, of Scottsdale, Ariz., a restaurant entrepreneur who has taken HGH for almost 15 years to keep feeling young, said he noticed a price jump of about 25 percent after the block on imports. He now buys HGH directly from a doctor at an annual cost of about $8,000 for himself and the same amount for his wife.
Many older patients go for HGH treatment to scores of anti-aging practices and clinics heavily concentrated in retirement states like Florida, Nevada, Arizona and California.
These sites are affiliated with hundreds of doctors who are rarely endocrinologists. Instead, many tout certification by the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine, though the medical establishment does not recognize the group's bona fides.