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.

Linus Pauling is dead, but Miller Quarles is not discouraged.
Quarles is finishing off his LuAnn Platter at the Luby's on Fondren, picking the skin off his baked fish and complaining he's too full to eat more than a bite of his whole wheat roll. He generally likes cafeterias, he says, because "you can see what you're getting," but he's disappointed that this Luby's hasn't stocked skim milk since he asked for it on his last visit. The vegetables are good, and he's downed his spinach and broccoli. He'll settle for half the pumpkin pie, leaving the crust because "it's full of grease and white flour." Just when the 80-year-old's concern for his diet appears wholesome, he dumps three packets of sugar on top of the two lime wedges in his ice water. "Supposed to drink a lot of liquids, and this makes it tastes better," he explains. As Quarles stirs the sugar, he returns to his topic. Typically, Quarles is talking about death. But unlike some in his age group he's not talking about who died recently, or who's on the Reaper's waiting list or when he might be expected to sleep the big sleep. No, when Miller Quarles talks about death, he has one thing in mind: how to postpone it.

As Quarles views it, the question is fundamental: do you want to die sooner, or do you want to die later? Quarles has already found his own answer to this question. He's certain he wants to die later, much later. Say about 100 years later. And he's sure that an elongated life will happen, if not for him, then for many who will live long enough to see science solve aging. Actually, he refers to the task as "curing the old age disease."

Of course, Miller Quarles isn't the first to have a passion for stretching the human life span to cover centuries instead of decades. In the Middle Ages, some European nobility drank the blood of virgins to help maintain their youthful vigor. Quarles isn't quite that enthusiastic, but his anti-aging obsession isn't just the idle daydream of an octogenarian either. He's put up a $100,000 reward in a certificate of deposit for any scientist who discovers a way to reverse, or at least stall, the march to the grave, and he's formed the Curing Old Age Disease Society (COADS), an organization that presently claims 170 members. And to spread the anti-aging word, Quarles writes a monthly column that runs in about six free publications that are published locally in La Porte and Deer Park and outside the state in Florida and California.

With all the energy and time he's dedicated to his mission, the death of Pauling

was a blow to Quarles, both personally and professionally. "When Pauling died, it was the first time in 20 years I cried," he says. A two-time Nobel Prize winner (one in 1954 for chemistry, one in 1962 for peace), Pauling taught Quarles physical chemistry at Cal Tech back in the 1930s, and the two had recently exchanged correspondence. They shared not only a passion for science, but also a preoccupation with living as long as possible.

Publicly, Pauling was best known for his promotion of vitamin C as a way to cure the common cold, but within the scientific community he was credited with using quantum theory to explain the fundamentals of chemical bonding. He also uncovered the genetic basis for sickle cell anemia and almost beat James Watson and Francis Crick to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. In his later years, Pauling's work turned in part to life extension, with a 1986 book irresistibly titled How to Live Longer and Feel Better. Pauling made it to 93 before succumbing this August 19 to prostate cancer. Quarles, 14 years Pauling's junior at the time of his mentor's death, has also had prostate problems, but says that after a few "roto-rooter" procedures to trim back the often troublesome male gland he's feeling fine. An earlier transient ischemic attack -- something of a mini-stroke -- has not recurred, but the memory of it has him popping half an aspirin a day as a precaution. Aside from these routine glitches, Quarles boasts of being "healthy as hell."

Even so, Pauling's passing seems to have steeled Quarles to his task. Though he ambles about in a manner that brings the word "spry" to mind, Quarles knows the clock is running. No matter how fine he feels, he's still 80. But as the finish line approaches, slowing the pace is not on his agenda. He takes tennis lessons on Saturdays, plays several matches on Tuesdays and Thursdays and does a kicking and chopping karate workout about once a week.

Much of what Quarles does to stay in shape is just common sense. He never smoked, he rarely drinks, he hasn't done recreational drugs and he watches what he eats, sticking to modest portions of a traditional diet. If his regimen could be boiled down to phrase, it is this: watch your diet, do lots of exercise and take lots of vitamins. Yet his vitamin intake isn't bizarre or magical. As an early disciple of Pauling, he took four grams a day of vitamin C, but a few years back he jacked it up to eight grams a day. Also on Pauling's advice, he's taking a daily dose of two grams of L-lysine, an amino acid believed to be helpful in preventing heart disease. Other daily doses include 20,000 units of beta carotene as an anti-cancer antioxidant and a 100 milligram dose of B-complex. He takes chromium picolinate three times a week to help maintain his muscle mass and a dose each of zinc and selenium once a week.

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.

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.'"

The Dark Side

Oh yes, the consequences. If there's a dark side to Quarles' passion for a longer life, it surfaces when he discusses the what-ifs of life extension. Those discussions are occurring increasingly on the Rotary-Optimist Club speaking circuit, where the public relations firm Quarles hired to help him spread his message has succeeded in booking him. Often, there's a generational response to his message. At a recent Rotary lunch by the Ship Channel, most of the younger Rotarians left before or during Quarles' video presentation and talk. Only a table of older Rotarians, referred to as the "old farts," stayed. And at a recent appearance in northwest Houston, Quarles addressed the Rotary Club of Copperfield at the Hearthstone Country Club. The 11 Rotarians present sat through his spiel on telomeres and a possible 200-year life span, but some appeared more interested in glancing at their watches or checking their beepers than counting the number of divisions left in their cells.

After being told that Geron had already tested its hypothesis on rats, one Rotarian asked if there were any plans about what to do with "500-year-old rats." As his

presentation ended, Quarles was pleased that all his newsletters and brochures were picked up. One Realtor said he would join COADS and joked, "Imagine, a 200-year mortgage!"

Not all the "what-ifs" are quite so lighthearted. There are plenty of concerns related to hordes of people living a multitude of years. What about overpopulation, for example. Isn't this just the sort of thing to put Paul Ehrlich in a tizzy?

Quarles' recurring response to this question amounts to a version of mass sterilization. The idea is to inoculate youths with a contraceptive vaccine so they can't bear children until they're given an antidote by a doctor -- or someone -- who decides they're old enough and responsible enough to be parents. "What I propose is that nobody can have a kid," Quarles says. "Nobody be fertile. If you want to have a kid, go to a doctor and get the antidote."

Of course all sorts of ugly possibilities lurk about this proposal, including government-mandated sterilization of select people. Quarles admits to some of potential nightmares, but he tires of the criticism. "You expect some frustration, some concern over finding the damn fountain of youth, don't you?" he says. "This is what it is."

"You say you'll cure the old age disease and everybody wants to know what will happen 100 years from now," he continues. "They expect me to solve all the problems in the world just because I'm trying to eradicate a disease that kills us all."

In other words, don't bother him with too many what-ifs. Still, he has dealt with some what-if issues, among them Social Security, which he wrote about in one of his newspaper columns. His idea -- similar to one floated by some balanced budget advocates -- is that only seniors who need Social Security should get it. The scale would start with anyone earning less than $36,000 a year keeping all his or her Social Security, and those earning over $52,000 getting nothing. Those with incomes in between would get varying percentages of the present payment. Quarles has proposed that this take effect immediately, with the saved funds being dedicated to research on diseases that affect senior citizens and, of course, to research aimed at solving the aging process.

Such ideas don't always find friendly ears among the elderly. For many, retirement is welcome. If life spans are routinely extended past 100 -- and accelerate from there as the aging riddle is answered -- retirement won't just be moved back, it might be erased.

"One of the typical questions from old people is, 'Do I have to go back to work?'" he says. "All I can say is, would you rather die or go back to work?" The implication is that for some, the grave looks better than a return to the workplace. "The idea that you don't have to die sometimes is sorta scary," Quarles admits.

Ultimately, if the "cure" is found, it won't be mandatory. "If you could go back to work looking like 40 or 45, you'd probably would want to work," says Quarles. "But you don't have to take the cure, you can go on just like you are and die of old age."

Getting people to live longer, healthier lives won't be all expense; there'll be some savings attached as well. Payments to Medicare and nursing homes will diminish and elders who choose to return to the workplace could increase the economy's productivity and pay more taxes. That's the upside. The downside includes a generational resistance to the idea of more old folks. Even now some younger folks are worried about the baby boomers approaching their 50s. Fears among the 30-and-under crowd are that the costs of an aging populace will unduly burden them and stifle their economic opportunities. Quarles is sometimes faced with this argument, though never so clearly as when he met a woman through a dating service.

Sitting in the lounge area of the Fondren Tennis Club after a Tuesday afternoon match, Quarles sips water and recalls the unusually blunt reaction by his date to his longevity ambitions.

"I had a couple dates and I brought this up to her. She said, "You're a mean man. Why don't you go ahead and die off like you're supposed to and get out of the way for us younger people.' That's actually what she told me to my face." Quarles takes a sip of his rejuvenating water. "Needless to say, I didn't see her anymore."

Living to Flirt, Flirting to Live

Such reactions haven't dissuaded Quarles from meeting women or using dating services, though. Old doesn't have to mean sexually listless. And he's not about to change his personality or ambitions to cater to the next woman he encounters. He feels the way he feels about aging and death, and he's no more willing or able to change that than a leopard can change his spots. He believes he's become an anti-aging zealot because he has the money, the time, the good health, the scientific background, the determination to stay alive, the "chance meetings with significant men such as Pauling" and, of course, a sexual drive. "I'm as sexually active as I was when I was 30," he says. "You still have to have a sexual drive. Sex is very important to every human being."

If sex is the "scream of life" that one philosopher said it was, then Miller Quarles has plenty to yell about. During several conversations on aging, death and survival, Quarles makes a point of mentioning his continued sexual proclivity. He smiles as he mentions it, not so much in braggadocio or lechery as in a sense of relief and accomplishment. He could be saying, "You know, I can still read without glasses," or "My tennis game is getting better" or even "No need for prune juice."

On more than one occasion, Quarles mentions sperm cells as the one group of cells that's been found to use the "immortalizing enzyme" of telomerase to rebuild their telomeres. It's almost as if he's suggesting this proves the linkage of sex and longevity.

To see that sex is important to Quarles, look no further than the stationery for his anti-aging society. The board of directors includes two ex-wives and a current girlfriend, who happens conveniently to be an intensive care unit nurse. In one of his several tangents from his oil well drilling career (he also developed a board game and a scoring system for duplicate bridge), Quarles wrote a book with the hard-to-sell title, The Flirtation Game for Married People. He finished the book in 1987, but has yet to find a publisher interested in printing his description of the 13 stages of flirtation, based on the "Flirtation Quotient Test" he devised after years of observation and thousands of interviews. He's even added two appendices, "What is Date Rape and How It Can Be Prevented" and "Sexual Harassment Among Married People." Other chapters have such intriguing titles as "Difference Between Charm and Flirting," "Lack of Connection Between Flirting and Morals" and "Opportunities While Traveling."

His chapters on what makes a man or woman good in bed are fairly graphic, but also suggest an ideal room temperature of 75 to 80 degrees. Some sexism creeps through in certain areas, particularly when he advises women who don't manage orgasm to tell their mates, "I loved every bit of it, but am just so relaxed and happy that an orgasm was unnecessary for my complete fulfillment." As for males who want to leave shortly after orgasm, he advises, "If you must get up and leave, be sure you say as many endearing things afterwards as you did before."

Having a sexual drive is an important part of wanting to stay alive, Quarles says. In the "About the Author" appendix of his book, he says he "has had two congenial divorces and is now looking for a third wife."

Anxious for the Cure

Seated behind his desk in his downtown office on a Tuesday afternoon, Miller Quarles looks all of 80 years old, somehow sad and distracted, not at all like the vigorous image he displays on the tennis court. He's printing out his November newspaper column so it can be sent off to the California Senior Citizen. "They never turn down the column or change a word," Quarles says with a grin, though he knows full well, since he admitted it earlier, that the publication of his column may have something to do with the $150 advertisement he buys in the paper. The ad is placed next to the column and solicits new members for the Curing Old Age Disease Society.

Mail trickles in from the ad, with most of the respondents requesting that they become members without having to pay the $20 membership fee, an option Quarles has mentioned in his column. His monthly column also appears in People Plus in the Deer Park-Pasadena-La Porte area, Senior Citizen Reporter in California and The Golden Years in Florida and California. His columns deal with news on advances in longevity and Quarles' advice on how to deal with the possible complications of people living an extra century. He hopes the columns will spark interest in anti-aging research and raise the hopes of those who want a longer life.

Despite his blind faith in science, Quarles has to realize that his quest has evolved -- or degenerated -- into little more than a lobbying effort. As a lobbyist, his special interest is his own life. The advertisements, the columns and the personal pleadings are geared to raise awareness and support, both political and financial. The news of his "Quarles Prize" led to senior citizen bodybuilder and fitness author Bob Delmonteque putting up another $100,000, raising the ante for the scientist who solves aging to $200,000.

And Quarles continues a massive letter-writing campaign that, despite its lofty goal of unlocking eternity by supporting research at the cellular level, has as its modus operandi the cliched advice given to many a disgruntled citizen -- write your congressman. After years of writing rich, powerful and famous people, he was positively aglow recently that someone from Ross Perot's office had written him back with an "interesting" response.

Quarles can be quite persuasive in person, as his weekly tennis opponent and COADS board member Marion Weiler attests. Calling him a "great proselytizer," the Hastings High School science teacher recalls all the arguments they had when she agreed to help him. "He'd give me his letters and articles to edit, but I'd argue and debate with him," she says. "It was like when I was in college and had an instructor who liked Ayn Rand. You had to accept the initial premise of Rand -- that man is a selfish animal -- to get her books." She admits early cynicism with Quarles but is now "much more optimistic about the possibilities." Her reluctance to be as obsessive as Quarles about longevity may have something to do with her age, which at 51 is 29 years less than Quarles'.

"I can convince you we'll have a cure possibly in five years, more probably in ten years, almost certainly in 15 years and damn sure in 20 years," Quarles says. "If you're 40, you don't care if it's five, ten, 15 or 20, do you? You've got plenty of time."

Quarles doesn't have plenty of time, and he's acutely aware of that. The clock is ticking as he types his column, talks to Rotarians or writes his congressman. Since there are no pockets in shrouds, he considers the estimated $30,000 a year he spends on COAD's promotional efforts as money well spent. Ensconced in the downtown mission control of his anti-aging campaign, Quarles resembles a jailhouse lawyer surrounded by law books as he prepares one more appeal on his death sentence. Giving up at this point would be silly. He's in this fight until the end.

His resilience is the result of a simple choice, one governed by inescapable logic. "I'm due to die within five years due to the actuary tables," he says, his books and charts and stones a backdrop to his statement of finality. "It's almost like I've got AIDS. If you've got AIDS, you're damn anxious to get a cure for AIDS. I'm damn anxious to get a cure for old age.

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