O woe! What do I do now, where do I go now?
Death has devoured my body,
Death dwells in my body,
Wherever I go, wherever I look, there stands Death! -- Epic of Gilgamesh
Miller Quarles raises his arms in triumph and allows a smile to steal across his wolfish face. The 85-year-old has just mopped up the sun-pummeled hard court with an opponent 20 years his junior.
It was a friendly tennis match played in a leafy subdivision largely for the benefit of a reporter. Still, Quarles's determination was palpable. He grunted on serves, chased down shots on stiff but surprisingly muscular legs and thwacked the hell out of the ball. On some strokes, like a deft backhand that required a deep knee bend, Quarles emitted a painful groan. He jogged -- never just walked -- to retrieve balls hit out of play.
All in all, he cut the striking figure of a very old man in excellent shape, making one wonder whether 85 is really that old.
But then again, Quarles is far from an average octogenarian -- or "oxygenarian," as the wags in his crowd would have it. He's obsessive about exercise, eats with near monkish asceticism and swallows a small pharmacy's worth of vitamins and supplements -- more than 60 tablets -- every day.
A roaring health kick is the easy answer for why Quarles is so willing, and able, to throw himself body and soul into a casual game of tennis. But it doesn't get to the core of the matter. More important is his almost superhuman competitiveness. And on this hot summer's morning his opponent was not some good-natured, sixtysomething man. His opponent was death.
For the past decade, Quarles has made headlines as the man who put a bounty on the Grim Reaper's head. He had a standing offer of $100,000 to any scientist who could find the proverbial fountain of youth by the year 2000, and has invested liberally in biotech start-ups that focus on life-extension research.
Researchers say an era is dawning when people will routinely live to be 200. Investigations into embryonic stem cells, the human genome and cloning suggest ways to turn back the clock on aging. For Quarles, the fountain of youth is so tantalizingly close he can practically taste it.
And yet he's not getting any younger. He has good reason to believe he will not live to see the benefits of the advances he has championed.
As he gulps water at courtside after the match, his thoughts turn to his usual tennis partner, Purl Vickers, a man whose crisp ground strokes and successful battles against cancer have earned Quarles's abiding respect. Together they have won the city doubles championship for their age group for two years running. ("Partly because there are only one or two guys old enough to get out on the courts at 85," Quarles quips, with a hint of truth.)
On this morning, however, Vickers is laid out at home with chest pains.
"Poor Purl," Quarles says. "He's almost one of my best friends. I used to have nothing but a spin serve. He taught me that harder serve."
Someone who claims to be finding the "fountain of youth" might be branded immediately as "some sort of nut" and should be humored but certainly not taken seriously. I'm sure that I, Miller Quarles, a man of science, would have felt that way had I first heard of this claim in my younger days. -- Miller Quarles
In his lifetime, Quarles has watched cars replace horse-drawn buggies, and missions to space evolve from the first clumsy flights on a North Carolina beach. Words like Internet, cell phone and fax would have sounded like gibberish mere decades ago. Average life expectancy has shot up from 47 in 1900 to 76 today.
Yet he also has witnessed the horrors that have left ominous stains: world wars, the atomic bomb, a mushrooming population, large-scale environmental degradation and the emergence of new epidemics like AIDS.
Quarles acknowledges the dark side, but is far more dazzled by the innovations. He says the promise borne by the positive changes has whetted his appetite for eternal life.
"The driving thing is that the world is so exciting now. They're finding new things all the time," he says, luxuriating over syllables as if they were a favorite dessert. "Mars has some canyons that are ten miles deep -- they've already figured that -- and I want to go see one of those damn canyons."
The man searching for the fountain of youth spent most of his adult years plumbing the earth for another coveted commodity: oil. Quarles became an expert at mapping the earth's interior and turning the mute lines on geophysical charts into gushing profits for his employers.
For years he zipped across Texas and Oklahoma in his own little airplane to head crews in pursuit of black gold.
His path to success was largely of his own making. His father was a newspaper linotype operator and union organizer whose work would take the family from Georgia to Arizona and eventually San Diego. As a kid, Quarles had the focus and drive that would define him as an adult.
Sue Woelfel, his second wife before they divorced in 1985, recalls him telling her how at a young age he sized himself up against his peers and saw that he wasn't the best-looking kid in school. So he strove to become the brightest.
"He said, "In order to be popular, I had to do something. That something was to be the smartest kid in school.' And so he always was. I'm sure he's considered a genius," Woelfel says.
Quarles's scholastic prowess was enough to get him into the California Institute of Technology, where he found himself amid some of the finest minds in science.
But forced to work as a night watchman while tackling a rigorous course load, young Quarles faltered. He took a leave of absence after his junior year and got a job as a government inspector on a canal project in Yuma, Arizona. There, he met his first wife, Norma, a high school Latin teacher. Quarles later returned to Cal Tech and received bachelor's and master's degrees in geology.
Oil brought the couple to Texas, where they raised three daughters. The family also had a two-year stint in France. Patricia Richardson, Quarles's eldest daughter and an ecologist in Austin, says her childhood was a happy one. The two words she uses to describe her dad are "interesting" and "focused." He was a master at inventing diversions.
"If you went swimming in a river, he would say, "Let's divert the channel, let's change the flow of water,' " she says. "We would spend all day building a dam out of rocks and wear our hands bare. But he was always intriguing -- you didn't just sit around."
Many of their pastimes involved games. She recalls a rare occasion when she beat Quarles at Ping-Pong at an early age.
"I won a game and I was so excited. I beat him!" she recalls, copping the thrilled tone of a child who has pulled off a miracle. But then she noticed the pained look on her father's face. "He was glad that I had won and wasn't taking anything away from that, but he must have been saying to himself, "I could have done better. I shouldn't have lost.' I ended up crying because winning was much, much more important to him than it was to me."
Quarles brings intense passion to his hobbies. He has amassed a tremendous collection of gems and minerals, which seem to fill every conceivable tabletop, shelf and drawer in his home and office. He took up karate at the age of 52 and earned a green belt. His enthusiasm for bridge led him to develop a related game that sold thousands of copies.
It was through bridge that Quarles caught the eye of Woelfel, his second wife, in the late 1960s. He and Norma had divorced after 32 years of marriage. Woelfel, a secretary at the oil company where he worked, was the only one who showed up one day for his lunch-hour bridge class. So Quarles showed her some memory tricks. He had her flash the cards from two shuffled decks. When she finished, he recited back all 104 cards in their exact order.
She says she enjoyed her 13 years of marriage to Quarles, calling him a man of "intense integrity" who was fun to be around.
"But he's peculiar, and I had a hard time living with him, and that's why we eventually divorced," she says. One thing that troubled her was what she saw as a jealous streak. Quarles considered her a natural-born flirt, she says, and the two bickered about it. Quarles ended up channeling his frustrations into a book he wrote called All You Want to Know about Married Flirtation.
"It was really a cute book, but I resented it because he used my nature as part of the reason he wrote that book," she says.
The divorce was amicable. She kept the house; Quarles took the rocks and minerals. He slipped back into bachelorhood like a bass cut from a line.
He was a successful older gentleman with two ex-wives, three grown children and a fantastic collection of rocks. He now was working exclusively as a well-paid consultant. He had much more time to devote to his hobbies, and reflect. But when he ruminated on the big picture, what he saw was death.
Quarles did not view old age as a mellow phase of ripening before death. The avowed man of science saw it as nothing less than a painful, fatal disease. It pissed him off.
"I am a very healthy, happy and active human being who thinks it's ridiculous that I've been condemned to death," he wrote in 1989, at the age of 76.
Patricia Richardson remembers getting a call from her dad around that time. He sounded uncharacteristically glum.
"He said, "I guess I'm kind of upset because statistically I only have ten more years to live and I just love life. Do you think if I learned about genetics I could make a difference?' "
Richardson, a scientist herself, told him that she believed he could.
"I said, "go for it.' So he did."
With typical zeal, Quarles versed himself in the biology of aging. He learned that the human body is composed of trillions of cells, each of which is programmed to divide a certain number of times in a person's lifetime. When cells cease to divide, the body decays, and a person eventually dies.
Quarles believed that immortality was a matter of identifying and changing the genetic instruction that told cells how many times to divide. As he saw it, his mission was to find scientists who could locate this gene. He set out to rally seniors, scientists and policy-makers to rage with him against the dying of the light.
Quarles founded a nonprofit organization called the Curing Old Age Disease Society (COADS) to trumpet the theme that old age is a curable epidemic, and to secure funds for scientists blazing trails to the fountain of youth. He wrote to a slew of world leaders, corporate CEOs and media magnates to enlist their support in the war on aging.
The letter-writing blitz bore little fruit, but Quarles notched successes in other areas. Starting with the $100,000 fatwa he pronounced on death in 1990, he proved extremely savvy at drumming up media attention. He routinely offers himself as a poster child for a new generation of fabulously fit, life-loving seniors -- and the international media has gobbled him up. The London Sunday Times, 20/20, CNN and news organizations in Europe, Australia and elsewhere have featured Quarles.
He has become something of an old hand at dealing with reporters, often suggesting ideas for the story or a novel picture. Articles almost invariably refer to him as a "Texas oilman millionaire." He admits that may be misleading, since in his own rough appraisal his assets barely hit the million-dollar mark. Still, he does little to dispel the notion. He chuckles at how once, for a BBC documentary, he agreed to ride around in a limo while wearing a Stetson.
Quarles himself dabbles in journalism. He pens columns for COADS and a pair of California seniors publications. But Quarles has said his single greatest achievement came during a cryonics meeting in 1990, when he "found" his kindred spirit, innovative cell biologist Michael West.
Though only half Quarles's age, West admits to being obsessed with aging and death. He, too, considers old age a disease, regardless of how "natural" it is.
"There is a biology of aging. And that biology is not to the benefit of human beings and their individual health," he says. "Whatever you want to call it, it's killing people."
West was fresh out of Baylor College of Medicine when he founded Geron Corporation, a company that has become a leader in age-related medical research. Quarles invested $50,000 in the fledgling firm. When West left Geron in 1997 to become CEO of another biotech company, Advanced Cell Technology, Quarles cashed in his Geron stocks and invested in West's new company.
"To Miller's credit, I came to him in the early days of Geron," West says. "I've heard him say he was Geron's first investor -- he was not the first. But he was among the first."
West recruited a coterie of scientists to study the biology of aging. In 1998 Geron-backed researchers hit pay dirt. They succeeded in isolating embryonic stem cells.
Researchers believe that these cells, obtained from very young human embryos, can be coaxed into becoming any cell, organ, tissue or bone in the body -- brain cells for Alzheimer's sufferers, neurons for people with spinal cord injuries, heart muscles for victims of cardiac disease. In short, stem cells hold the promise of a potentially endless cache of replacement body parts.
Furthermore, because stem cells can be derived through cloning, a person could obtain a body part that is a perfect immunological match.
But for all their promise, West says, stem cell therapies will not significantly impact human longevity. The method is more like treating the symptoms of a disease rather than its cause.
"Aging is a brick wall," West says. "All the tissues in our body are aging. So if I solve one problem, especially just the symptoms of those problems, something else is going to hit you."
But Advanced Cell Technology scientists think they may have found a way over the wall.
In April, West and colleagues published a paper in the journal Science that detailed how, using old cells from cows, they succeeded in cloning six calves that appeared capable of living far longer than naturally conceived calves. The secret lay in their telomeres, the strand of DNA at the end of every cell. Like the fuse of a bomb, these strands get shorter with each cell division and ultimately disappear, causing cells to die.
West says the scientists succeeded in activating the gene for the enzyme telomerase, causing the telomeres in the cloned calves' cells to become longer than those of a normal animal.
"Cloning was like a time machine -- it literally made an old cell young again," West says.
West is not alone in seeing revolutionary potential in these breakthroughs.
Michael Fossel is a professor of clinical medicine at Michigan State University and the author of Reversing Human Aging, a book that earned him a $10,000 prize from Quarles. He believes scientists are close to turning back the clock for the entire body.
"Realistically, clinically when will you be able to go in and say, "All right, turn it back, Doc'? The answer is going to be another good decade or two. But that's not very long, if you think about it."
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." -- John 11:25
These people appear to prefer death and heaven to a not-too-happy lifetime. -- Miller Quarles
One of the biggest gripes from Quarles, West and other advocates of stem cell research and therapeutic cloning is the lack of funding available for such work.
These investigations have been highly controversial, entailing the destruction of human embryos and fiddling with the genetic building blocks of life. Congress bans federal funding for investigations using human embryos, a blackout that essentially has balkanized the research to the private sector.
Advanced Cell Technology has raised eyebrows by using interspecies cloning to obtain stem cells. Researchers there have found they can create an embryo by taking an ordinary human skin cell and implanting it in a cow's egg that has had its DNA removed.
Within the medical community there are scientists who have serious doubts about both the ethics and the science of such experiments.
Stuart Newman, a professor of cell biology at New York Medical College, says the sanguine musings of some stem cell researchers are creating a lot of false hopes. The idea of replacing organs and cells as if they were car parts is unrealistic, he says, because the human body can take only so much surgery. And attacking aging at the source by extending peoples' telomeres is not without its serious risks too. He says telomerase, the enzyme that would increase divisions in healthy cells, also is responsible for the out-of-control division of cancer cells.
"How many generations of experiments will we be asked to go through with people getting higher rates of cancer?" he asks. "To propose doing experiments on developing humans to see how they turn out, and wait a couple of generations to see if you've gotten your desired effect without increased cancer rates or something -- it's crazy."
Researchers in at least one lab have shown they can use telomerase to make human cells "immortal" without causing cancer, Fossel says. Nevertheless, West acknowledges that the research remains controversial for a variety of reasons.
But he argues that many objections are rooted in semantics, with people getting riled up over words like "embryo" and "cloning." He says the life form from which stem cells are derived is not so much an embryo as a "pre-embryonic" cluster of cells.
Regarding cloning, West says the form of the technology he advocates is "therapeutic," not "reproductive." His scientists are creating cells, not babies. And using cows' eggs is a cheaper and more humane method than using human eggs, and won't result in a monster hybrid species, he says.
"Despite the concern that we're making minotaurs and mermaids -- half-human, half-cow -- we remove the genetic information from the cow," he says.
What galls West more than anything is the argument that all these experiments are being done for no discernible purpose. "Well, how about curing heart disease? How about curing Parkinson's or a kid who's got renal failure [or] letting Christopher Reeve walk again? These are very legitimate purposes that we are trying to develop these technologies for," he says.
He estimates that there are only about 100 scientists working on stem cell and cloning research to extend human life, and calls that amount "pitifully and tragically small."
"There's no federal funding available yet. Little biotech companies can barely make a dent," he says.
But West and other proponents of the revolutionary technologies had reason to cheer last month when the National Institutes of Health issued guidelines for research on stem cells, under which scientists will be eligible for federal funds. That development came on the heels of the British government's announcement that it would support some forms of human cloning to treat disease, reflecting a shift in attitude by policy-makers toward the technology.
But West does not dare hazard a guess about what all of this will mean for Miller Quarles.
"The Berlin Wall's coming down -- we've solved the aging of cells," he says. "So when will we see an effect on human life span? I guess what I'm really comfortable saying is that I believe we will see a measurable effect on human life span in the lifetime of people now living. What are Miller's chances? I just don't have a crystal ball that's clear enough to predict that."
For his part, Quarles anxiously watches the action from the sidelines, applauding the breakthroughs and excoriating any kind of feet-dragging by bureaucrats. He feels he doesn't have time to wait out the debates on the ethical nuances of these brave new technologies. Watching friends like Purl Vickers buckle under the tide of age forces him into sober assessments of his own chances to live on indefinitely. He wants action now.
The millennium came and went with plenty of hoopla -- but no fountain of youth. Quarles grudgingly withdrew his offer of $100,000 to any scientist who might find it. (He now says Mike West may have a valid case for getting the award because of the success with the cloned calves.)
He still sees West as his best hope for immortality. Lately his thoughts have centered on having himself cloned. Since none of his three daughters has children, a clone might be the only way for Quarles to have his DNA line perpetuated, he says.
He says West extracted cells from his arm several months ago and is actively at work trying to clone him. West denies it. His company is exploring therapeutic, not reproductive, cloning, he reiterates.
"I'm certainly not working on cloning Miller," West says.
Quarles says his friend's denials are understandable given the fears that the novel technology arouses in government officials and the general public. "Well, it would be silly for him to say that he was [trying to clone me]. It is so controversial," he says. "We'd appreciate it if you don't just start a big uproar that we're trying to break the law and things like that."
Quarles has been using his columns to advocate the cloning of exceptional human beings to help solve the world's troubles. He says his old Cal Tech professor, the late Linus Pauling, who won the Nobel Prize for both chemistry and peace, would have been a perfect person to clone.
"There are so many problems right now in the world that are not solved. It seems that we need more and more smart people to help try to solve them," he says. "Smarter people are going to concentrate on keeping the earth intact, keeping it cleaner. You've got to have some brains to do that. Stupid people just go and eat all they want and play all they want and die early. So we need some intelligence to solve the problems. Otherwise we're doomed."
Those comments by Quarles evoke images of Brave New World. When asked who would decide who should be cloned, he offers no answer. And wouldn't mass-producing a genius like Pauling diminish his uniqueness?
"Gosh, I'm not trying to diminish his uniqueness. I'm trying to solve the problems of the world. And we're not doing it very well," he says. His faith in reason and intelligence is absolute.
"The human brain is easily recognized as the greatest miracle of all time," his articles say. "Let's show our Supreme Being that the humans He has created can do the job He has planned for us. Let's thank Him only for the miraculous spirit residing in our brain and vow to enhance it through learning and health until we can achieve a true Heaven right here on Earth."
For critics who contend that doubling life spans would exacerbate global overpopulation, Quarles has a ready answer. Set strict limits on birth rates and possibly create a vaccine against pregnancy, he says. These are the kinds of bugs the smart people will work out. For Quarles, a fountain of youth represents humankind's best shot at achieving a paradise on earth.
He envisions a world run by wise elders -- in their ever-youthful incarnation. In a society where people lived to be 200, individuals would think more about the long-term consequences of their actions and take better care of themselves and the planet, he says. As the symptoms of aging disappeared, people would stay productive longer. Education would flourish. And, Quarles believes, people would at long last make love, not war.
He has little tolerance for anyone who would forgo this earthly utopia for the promise of an afterlife that nobody can prove exists. He points out in one of his columns that the dearly departed have sent no postcards from heaven that read, "Arrived safely; weather is fine; wish you were here."
For all of his ballyhooing of organized religion, however, Quarles often seeks out the companionship of religious folks. Woelfel, his second wife, is the daughter of a Baptist minister and remains active in the faith.
Joanne Gooden, one of Quarles's regular lunch partners and the woman who edits many of his columns, considers herself religious and frequently challenges Quarles's ideas. She has read him the biblical passage from Ecclesiastes that says there's a time for everything under heaven, a time for birth and a time for death. "I told him obviously that's true because of the telomeres," she says. "There is a built-in time clock, and when that time clock ran out, then a man would die a natural death."
Without missing a beat, Quarles cuts in: "[God] made our brains smart enough to extend that time clock."
He and Gooden share a good laugh.
Nan-po Tzu K'uei said to Nü Yü, "How is it, in spite of your great age, you have the freshness of a child?"
Nü Yü replied, "Through living in conformity with the Tao, I have not become exhausted." -- Chuang Tzu, Book VI, The Writings of Chuang Tzu
Miller Quarles leans forward in his swivel chair, setting his elbows on his knees. He is in his kitchen dressed in a yellow oxford shirt and dark pinstripe pants. He clasps a spoon in one hand and a can of cat food in the other.
"All right, let's do some tricks," he says to Rusty and Sandy, his half-grown kittens, and promptly begins barking out commands. "Roll over! Roll over! Roll over -- no, not sit up!"
After a moment of indecision and a couple of hapless meows, Rusty, an orange shorthair, performs a supple roll on the kitchen floor. Quarles rewards him with a spoonful of wet food. He takes the cats through an increasingly difficult repertoire, which includes sitting up, leaping to exact spots on their jungle gym and touching a ladybug magnet on the refrigerator.
He is a firm, if amused, taskmaster. He has taught his cats 14 tricks in all. Joy animates his raspy voice, even when it deepens to a growl to encourage obedience. He laughs frequently at this unlikely spectacle he has learned to orchestrate.
Brenda Linn, a petite redheaded ICU nurse, sashays into the small kitchen and comes up behind her boyfriend as he gets a glass of water at the sink. She hugs Quarles playfully, almost as though she were administering the Heimlich maneuver.
"You want some, too?" Quarles asks her.
"No. Orange juice," she says coyly. "You know me and my orange juice, my vitamin C."
They make a cute pair. He, the dashing older man who looks like a college professor with neatly parted gray hair and green corduroy jacket. She, a fit, chipper gal of 70. They cohabited a few years back, but clashed constantly. Linn now keeps her own home for those times when the two need a break.
"She has a strong will," Quarles says. "Feisty as hell."
Settling onto the arm of his beige wraparound couch in the living room, Quarles speaks about cloning and cryonics -- freezing dead bodies on the assumption they may be brought to life again. He uses the same matter-of-fact tone that other old-timers might use to discuss that morning's golf round or the latest developments with their bowels.
"Michael West has arranged to have me cryonically suspended," he says, adding with a chuckle, "He didn't want to lose me." (West denies that he is working on cryonics.)
"Oh, Miller, you wouldn't want to do cryonics, would you!" Linn exclaims.
Quarles explains that he would like to be frozen only if he could come back with his memory intact. If so, cryonics would be more appealing to him than having a clone, which would merely allow his DNA -- not him -- to live on.
"I'd rather come back with memories than have a clone," he says. "Of course, the ideal [would be to] take enough cells to clone me, and about 30 years before they bring me back, activate the clone. My clone will be 30 years old when I come back. My son could be my father and tell me what's going on in the world. It's sort of science fiction now but"
It's this kind of talk that leads Quarles's ex-wife to call him "peculiar."
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. -- Psalm 23
In May 1999 Quarles was only looking for ways to improve his vitamin regimen when he wrote a letter asking the Life Extension Foundation in Florida to evaluate his intake and suggest changes.
Over the years, he has devised a formidable arsenal of vitamins and supplements to take each day. The list ranges from the exotic (bee pollen, green tea extract, ginkgo) to the prosaic (vitamin C, aspirin) to the coldly clinical (chromium picolinate).
He sent along blood samples as well.
Bill Faloon, the foundation's vice president, called Quarles back a few days later with disturbing news: Tests showed signs of prostate cancer.
Quarles took the news calmly. His doctors had fretted similarly in the past, but biopsies always came back negative. Still, he didn't want to take any chances and had another biopsy done.
This one came back showing three spots of cancer.
"It worried the hell out of me," Quarles says.
He was set to start undergoing radiation treatment at M.D. Anderson, when the doctor told him there was a 60 percent chance he would emerge from the process incontinent or impotent.
For a man who has done everything to maintain his youthful vigor, neither option was acceptable. He had bounced back from a minor stroke some 20 years ago. As for his libido, he says, it has never flagged. He wasn't about to let it go.
"A lot of times when men give up sex or they can't have sex anymore, they lose a lot of interest in life," he says. "If they can stay sexually active, I think, they're happy."
Quarles declined the radiation. Faloon told him about hormone drugs that could reduce and possibly cure the cancer. "I said, "Well, I'll try that,' " Quarles recalls.
Patricia Richardson says her father's quest for the fountain of youth is primarily motivated by a love of life and not a fear of death. She says the effort has become hopelessly entwined with his fiercely competitive spirit.
"If he dies, it will probably be like if he lost a Ping-Pong game. He'll say, "I could have done better! I could have made this happen!' " she says. "It will aggravate him to die. I really haven't ever detected fear [of death]. He really does just like life."
More than a year after the initial diagnosis, the cancer treatment appears to be working.
"I think that I'll be all right," Quarles says. "I still think that I'm going to live to be 200."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.