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Even though there's nothing wrong with him, Gary Prater swallows approximately 100 pills a day. In the past ten years, he hasn't even had a cold. And he'd like to keep it that way. He also wants to avoid contracting diseases such as cancer, hepatitis, and Lou Gehrig's. So every three to four hours, he pops about 15 pills -- a combination of dietary supplements, vitamins, and herbal extracts.
With the help of these pills, Prater expects to live to the age of 115. "Give or take five," he says without a trace of humor.
He's standing in front of bottles of "Jason Winters Intestinal Cleaner" and "Super Colon Cleanser" in a Hollywood vitamin store called the Life Extension Nutrition Center. On the colon-cleanser bottle is a crude black-and-white sketch of a large intestine.
"How old do you think I am?" Prater asks a visitor.
"I'm 52," he boasts. "I don't look bad for 52."
A slight, soft-spoken man whose brown hair has a strand or two of silver streaking through, Prater is manager of the store, which is located in a grubby strip mall on State Road 84 in Fort Lauderdale. The store is owned by the Life Extension Foundation (LEF), a nonprofit alternative health care organization that claims it brought in $27 million in sales and donations last year and boasts an international membership of 40,000 people.
LEF's "headquarters" is a small set of offices accessed by a door in the vitamin shop. Inside, more than a dozen employees sit in cubicles and advise members and nonmembers over the phone. An advisor's job is to sell pills, dietary supplements, and "alternative" treatments LEF claims stave off just about every disease, including AIDS, hepatitis, and cancer.
While conventional health care companies putter along, waiting for approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for new drugs and treatments, LEF acts swiftly and effectively. This is the organization's claim. But there's more. By providing customers with dietary supplements and advice on how to acquire FDA-rejected medicines from overseas, LEF can help slow the aging process. The ultimate goal, one that should be achieved by the year 2020, is to develop technologies and medicines that will enable human beings to live forever.
"I don't like death," Prater says.
And, like his fellow LEF members, he doesn't like conventional medicine. But in effect LEF is practicing medicine -- and without a license. Its scientific director, Dr. E.K. Schandl, is a nutritionist. Yet he says he's developed a diagnostic test for cancer that a) measures cancer-causing chemical levels more accurately than any mainstream test and b) is capable of predicting the onset of cancer as far as 12 years in advance -- claims licensed oncologists say are absurd. But, using his test, Schandl makes diagnoses, then prescribes treatments.
Included in the treatments are "drugs" that have not been approved by the FDA but, because of loopholes in federal laws, may be used as alternatives. Dietary supplements top the list, and LEF admits that it advises members on how to legally obtain drugs from overseas. But this all comes at a cost: Prater, for instance, spends $4000 a year on his pills, and the typical LEF member is advised to submit to a blood-test and pill-taking regimen that costs, on average, $1500 a year.
The money, of course, goes to a nonprofit charitable organization, which claims to donate millions of dollars a year to universities and research centers for antiaging and immortality research. But LEF officials refused to share with New Times any financial data or IRS forms that, according to federal law, must be open to the public upon request. Bill Faloon, LEF's vice president and cofounder, says he would like to oblige but adds that LEF's financial situation is "too complicated to talk about."
More important, to him, is that LEF is simply doing what the FDA, which is investigating the organization, has failed to do: provide, as quickly as possible, the most comprehensive medical treatment to save and lengthen lives.
"Bullshit," retorts James Cerda, a University of Florida medical doctor and a member of the Florida Board of Medicine. "Pardon my French, but the FDA is slow. But the reason they're slow is because they don't want to kill you. That was the first thing imprinted in my mind in medical school. We have got to be conservative. Not everything has to be a breakthrough."
LEF's methods are anything but conservative. And that's fine with members, most of whom have had it with mainstream medicine.
George Baxas, an LEF member since 1990, is typical. Middle-aged and relatively healthy, he takes about 25 capsules a day of folic acid, vitamin E, and LEF's own "Life Extension Mix" -- a combination of food and vegetable extracts, minerals, and vitamins -- at a cost of roughly $150 a month.
In March he paid $95 for a blood test recommended by LEF and offered at the vitamin store. The test showed he had a high level of the amino acid homocysteine in his blood. Prater, who has no medical training, is also an LEF senior advisor. He told Baxas that high levels of homocysteine may irritate the interior linings of blood vessels and lead to a stroke or heart disease.