While others try to fathom the implications of the first human clone, Miller Quarles is thinking that it could have been his baby.
And that is precisely the kind of thinking that worries Dr. Michael West, CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, the company that announced the controversial breakthrough last month.
"If you or someone printed a story saying this man says Mike West promised to clone him, I will have a lot of explaining to do," he says via telephone from his office in Worcester, Massachusetts. "And this area is so explosive that I don't need to be answering to 50 different newspapers why that's not true."
For a man who just upped the ante on the proper bounds of science, and whose work brought quick condemnation from the likes of George W. Bush and the pope, West's concern centers on an obscure 87-year-old acquaintance from Houston. Quarles, a retired oil geologist, helped launch West's career (see "Miller's Crossing," by John Suval, September 14, 2000).
"He was going to clone me before it was illegal," says Quarles. "He took cells out of my arm. They were ready to clone me."
West vehemently denies it.
"Please get this clear. I certainly never made any such promise to Miller, nor did he have any such understanding," he says. "I know he would love to have me clone him. He's expressed that to me, and I politely declined. And I won't. I just think it's wrong." The anxious entrepreneur attributes Quarles's allegations to the "foggy memory of an old man."
Quarles -- wealthy, eccentric, extremely fit, equally at ease on the tennis court as behind the controls of an airplane -- has made it his life's quest to vanquish death. When it came time for him to drill for the fountain of youth, he found a kindred spirit in Michael West.
Fresh from medical school, where he studied gerontology, West courted the old man to invest in his start-up that would focus on cloning and turning back the clock on aging.
"Here is this young entrepreneur who's trying to get people to believe in a company, and it's just me and an idea, and a pretty crazy-sounding idea," West recalls. "Miller said, 'I like the sound of it,'" and plunked down $50,000 in the fledgling Geron Corporation.
West's team at Geron successfully isolated embryonic stem cells, the Holy Grail of regenerative medicine. These cells can potentially be coaxed into all manner of tissue, organs and cells, offering the promise of an endless cache of replacement body parts and cures for disease.
When West moved to Advanced Cell Technology in 1997, Quarles pumped funds into that company, too. West says his work has been confined to therapeutic cloning, a technology that could create genetically identical cells to repair damage to the spinal cord, heart, brain and other body parts.
However, Quarles covets a clone of himself. The octogenarian recently overcame prostate cancer but doesn't feel he can wait for therapeutic cloning, especially with the research likely to get mired in polarizing ethical debates.
With no male heirs and with his three daughters childless, Quarles believes his best shot at immortality is a clone of himself. West says he discouraged Quarles from pursuing the idea further.
"It's just not wise for us to clone people," West recalls telling him. "We don't know that it's safe, for one thing."
West says the cells he received from the old-timer were used for research unrelated to cloning.
Chances are Quarles will not be around to see a carbon copy of himself. A federal bill, passed by the House in July, proposes to make human cloning a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $1 million fine. Even before all the hullabaloo, Quarles says, West seemed to resist the idea of cloning him.
"Someone put a scare into Mike West. He doesn't want to talk about [cloning] anymore," he says.
West insists that he never wanted to discuss any cloning other than the therapeutic kind. He urges that the debate remain focused on the vast medical potential of such work. He lauds Quarles for his support over the years but wishes he'd drop the baby-clone talk.
Imploring a reporter to let the matter pass, the mild-mannered West says, "Save me the trouble of having to try to explain this for the next year."
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