WALTHAM — Wielding a glass mortar and pestle, pharmacy intern Joanne Lee mixes liquid medication used to treat parasites. It’s grape-flavored, to appeal to a child’s palate. At a nearby work station, a worker clad in gloves, mask, lab coat, boots, and hairnet weighs powder under a protective hood. Other technicians at Johnson Compounding & Wellness Center prepare hormone cream, produce vitamins, and heat a viscous gel to make a customized suppository.
The pristine, brightly lighted laboratory, visible behind a wall of windows at the back of the store, provides a glimpse of a niche area of drug preparation that has been abruptly thrust into the spotlight. A widening outbreak of fungal meningitis linked to steroids made by a Framingham compounding pharmacy has focused scrutiny on the regulation of such businesses. But much about how compounding pharmacies function, and even what compounding really is, has remained obscure.