Why Die?

At 80, Miller Quarles figures he should have 100 good years left. And Houston's apostle of life extension is determined to find them.

There are, however, no growth hormones, no injections of fetal lamb cells, no New Age crystals in his pocket, nothing in what he does that's really much outside the bounds of what your grandmother or your doctor might advise. True, the vitamin C dosage is 133 times the recommended daily amount and the L-lysine is of dubious advantage, but at worst they're harmless.

Is this, then, what's going to buy Quarles another 100 years? Not hardly, and he knows it. No, Quarles plans to get his ticket to the next millennium punched in the laboratory. His reliance on science is no surprise, considering that the only fashion statement among his ruffled sports coats and pants is his Cal Tech belt buckle. The bachelor's and master's degrees he gained from that school, and the instruction he received from Pauling and renowned biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan, instilled in him a reverence for science that, if anything, has increased with age.

Plus, science in the form of geology has made him a considerable amount of money. In 1989, when he set aside $100,000 for the "Quarles Prize," that amount represented about a third of his wealth. Now his worth is closer to that of a millionaire, thanks to the profits he's received from oil wells drilled in areas chosen by his interpretations of seismological readings. As a self-employed consulting oil geophysicist, Quarles makes his own schedule at his downtown office, with much of his time devoted to COADS. It frankly baffles him why other people aren't as enthused as he is about surviving beyond the normal life expectancy. Most people aren't thinking enough about science extending their lives another 50 or 100 years, Quarles says. Instead, they're content just to lie down and die. "It's like the whole world has its mind set on getting old and dying," he says.

Since he doesn't believe in an afterlife, Quarles doesn't see what the rush is about. Once he checks out, Quarles expects nothing. No green pastures as a reward, no inferno as punishment. In his view, death is likely to last a very, very long time. The abyss awaits, and Quarles is in no hurry to jump in. But he isn't afraid to die, he insists. Fear is not what motivates his longevity campaign.

In a slow, measured manner that suggests he has thought about this a lot in the last five years, Quarles sums up his view of death in two declarative sentences. "Death doesn't frighten me. It just encourages me to live a long time."

Immortality in a Petri Dish

Rummaging through the files in his downtown office for a copy of one of his recent monthly columns, Quarles is ever alert and attentive, particularly when the topic is aging and death. The years have taken something out of him, but it appears to be only about an inch and a few pounds. He's "shrunk" to 5-10 and he weighs a bit less than he did 20 or 30 years ago. The hair is grayer in person than in the photo that runs with his column, but that and wrinkled skin are the only visible symptoms of his 80 years. As he moves around his desk or heads quickly to the photocopier, it's obvious that his tennis and karate have kept him nimble.

Quarles desk is bordered by two long tables, one that displays part of his extensive rock and mineral collection and another that's filled with stacks of magazines ranging from Science to Cell to Playboy. A glass case holds other rock and mineral samples, which he collected during his petroleum-related travels around the globe. Even as he dwells on his death, Quarles' office is evidence that he's had a full and varied life .

Indeed, staying alive didn't begin to obsess Quarles until the late '80s, when he passed the biblical three score and ten. Only then did he become consumed with surviving an abnormally long period of time. He had maintained healthy habits, but it wasn't until an eye-opening conversation with his daughter Patricia Behrens, an Austin researcher with a doctorate in biochemistry, that it dawned on him that laboratory discoveries might be able to extend life to science-fictional lengths.

This extension wouldn't be triggered by any mythic fountain of youth, but rather by lab work brought to bear on a fundamental issue: survival. To Quarles, old age isn't an inevitable something that you prepare for or get used to. Rather, it's a biological, chemical, physiological process that should be reversible. At its most basic, Quarles thinks, aging is just another way of saying your cells have stopped multiplying. After several dozen divisions, each occurring over a two-year period, cells usually stop dividing and the body ages. Quarles is convinced that earth-bound immortality, or a version thereof, is simply a matter of when -- not if -- science divines a way to alter or enhance cells so that they avoid deterioration. The trick would be to find a way to keep cells dividing, thereby continuing the rejuvenation process that postpones aging and death.

About the time Quarles was thinking these thoughts, he ran across Michael West, a graduate of Baylor College of Medicine. West too, thought the mystery of aging could be solved at the cellular level, but it would take 30 to 50 years to make the breakthrough. That might be good news for a 35-year-old, but it only frustrated the then 75-year-old Quarles, who on that timetable would be long since deceased when success was announced. Money was one impediment to an earlier discovery; nobody wanted to fund research intended to alter the aging process, considering it too risky, too weird and too unlikely to succeed. If a scientist were to actually admit to such a goal, West told Quarles, they could kiss any government funding goodbye. After all, why would the government want people to live longer? If you think Social Security, Medicare and pension funds have problems now, just think of what would happen with millions of recipients well past 100 years of age. Scary.

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