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.

If the government had cold feet, Quarles didn't. He popped for $50,000, setting West up with the seed money needed to begin his research. The underlying premise of West's work -- then and now -- is that cell division and aging are related to structures found at the tips of chromosomes. Called telomeres, these chains become shorter each time a cell divides. The hypothesis is that once telomeres are whittled down enough, the cells will cease to divide and death is just a matter of time.

If that's true, then the antidote to aging could be a substance that maintains or lengthens a chromosome's telomeres. Such a substance, an "immortalizing enzyme" dubbed telomerase, has been isolated in ovarian cancer which, like other cancers, has a hallmark of uncontrolled growth. The aim of cancer researchers is to find a telomerase inhibitor, something that would stop the cells' growth. But it's possible that on the way to finding a way to stop telomerase activity researchers could find a way to put the telomerase enzyme back into cells, lengthening telomeres and triggering continued cell division. And just maybe stalling aging.

All this obviously interests Quarles. But while West is still in the hunt on telomere research, in 1992 he and his company moved to California and began stressing the anti-cancer angle, not the longevity one. That couldn't help but strain the links between West and Quarles, though West remains listed on the board of directors of COADS and Quarles is a "consultant" to West's corporation, Geron. Geron is now underwritten by millions of dollars from venture capitalists who, according to Quarles, have plans to go public. On the stock market, advances in anti-cancer research is one thing; talk about looking for a silver bullet against aging is something else again. Quarles claims he was made a Geron consultant to buy his silence. If that was the aim, it obviously didn't work.

Not for Quarles, anyway. West, on the other hand, has retreated from the age debate (a Geron spokesman explained he wouldn't be available to the Press). Before he went corporate, though, West participated in a 1992 HBO documentary about people obsessed with prolonging life, Never Say Die, and there he was positively effusive about his work's possibilities.

"Aging has a molecular basis that can be understood. It's a relatively simple phenomenon. In the past people have looked at age-related changes in tissues like the skin and thought they must be hopelessly complex," West explained on camera. "Now we think of it as a programmed phenomenon, programmed by certain genetic changes in individual cells in our body."

West then described so-called "immortal cells" he had developed in his work,
skin, cartilage and brain cells from a 92-year-old human that were manipulated in a petri dish to regain childlike qualities. "We can literally shift cells between an aging and immortal state," West beamed, "back and forth."

Meanwhile, back in mainstream medicine, not everyone is so sure that telomeres are the answer. James Smith, co-director of the Huffington Center on Aging and a professor of molecular

virology at Baylor College of Medicine, likens the telomeres hypothesis to gray hair and aging. Just because old people have gray hair -- or shorter telomeres -- doesn't mean that either one causes or controls aging.

"Aging is a very complex process and just being able to make cells divide or not divide is really not all there is to the aging process. That's what they're talking about on the telomeres hypothesis," Smith says. "It's premature to think of it as a way to do anything globally about the aging process. We just don't understand mammalian physiology well enough to even begin to think about that."

People will live longer, Smith admits, though much of that will come from healthier lifestyles and improvements in treating common diseases. The "normal maximum life span" might even stretch to as much as 120 years. But moving that to 150 or 200 years, says Smith, "is quite a long ways off."

Quarles isn't buying that thinking, particularly since his death is likely to occur somewhere this side of "quite a long ways off." He points to a chart on his office wall that shows the normal life expectancy -- the age at which half the population born in any year could be expected to still be alive -- was only 58 the year he was born. So actuarially, Quarles is already on borrowed time, and he doesn't want to hear mainstream medicine's cautionary tone and focus on the big picture. He prefers West's early optimism. Once the scientific puzzles are solved -- and Quarles expects they will be within the next 10 years -- he thinks the societal dilemmas of a growing older class are also surmountable. In the 1992 documentary, an upbeat, almost defiant West agreed.

When asked if all this isn't a bit frightening, that extending human life might pose all manner of social and ethical problems, West wasn't ruffled. "What's the alternative?" he asked. "Are we going to force people to die when they don't want to die to make room for a new generation?" He saw only one good option. "The only logical approach to this is to say, 'We're going to beat back the barriers of aging and improve health, and someone else will have to worry about the consequences.'"

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