By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
“I don’t want to become immortal through my work,” Woody Allen once quipped, “I want to become immortal by not dying.” From Egyptian Pharaohs to California Extropians, people have dreamed of eternal life, and few goals have inspired such outrageous leaps of imagination and faith. For Christians, of course, eternity is vouchsafed; the only question is whether one will spend it in bliss or agony. By the inexorable calculus of Hebraic monotheism, negation of the self is not an option; being is forever. Hindus also are currents in an eternal flow, though under the generous terms of this expansive polytheism, each soul is subject to perpetual bouts of reincarnation until the lessons are finally learned and one is released into the paradisiacal bliss of nirvana.
Even more than hell, or the possibility of life as a slug, man fears annihilation. Nothing is so terrifying as nothing at all. Thus in the wake of God’s infamous death and the consequent collapse of religious eternity, it was probably inevitable that secular man would invent a science of life extension. That science — or more precisely, the dream thereof — is ostensibly the subject of Stephen Hall’s new book, Merchants of Immortality, for, as Hall is the first to acknowledge, to date there have been considerably more press releases than concrete results. Companies have been launched, IPOs floated, millions spent, but no one has yet come near to finding a mythical elixir. Nor does Hall, a much admired contributor to journals such as The New York Times Magazineand the Atlantic Monthly, try to convince us that such a panacea is around the corner; on the contrary, he has produced a scrupulously researched and in many ways dispiriting account of the obstacle-ridden efforts to comprehend and defy the mechanisms of aging and death. Extropians seeking support for their visions of sesquicentennial birthday celebrations will be sorely let down.
Hall’s tale begins with what now seems a blindingly obvious revelation: Leonard Hayflick’s 1961 discovery that normal human cells have a limited lifetime. Strange though it may seem, biologists in the first half of the 20th century believed that normal cells kept in a medium were effectively immortal. Hayflick discovered that most cells will only divide a finite number of times, generally around 50. Built into the very chemistry of life is a preprogrammed end, what is now known as “the Hayflick limit.” Hayflick’s work kick-started the discipline of biomolecular gerontology, setting in motion a quest to understand the mechanisms responsible for this cutoff. From the beginning, Hall suggests, that quest was underpinned by a longing for circumvention — if we could only understand the process of cell senescence, then perhaps we’d be able to stop it.
Nature is nothing if not inventive, and the mechanism by which the Hayflick limit is implemented is a masterpiece of subtly crafted genetic engineering. It turns out that the ends of our chromosomes are capped by a sequence of repeated units known as telomeres — imagine a long line of identical Lego blocks. Each time a cell divides, one or more of these units is deleted. After many divisions the telomere chain has been chewed down so much that the cell can no longer carry out the mechanical process of dividing. Though life continues for a short while longer as the cell continues to metabolize, death is now inevitable.
The discovery of telomere shortening and the enzyme known as telomerase, which acts to link the telomere units together, electrified not only the small world of biomolecular gerontology but also a young entrepreneur named Michael West. In telomerase West discerned the foundation for his long-held dream of a company that would combat the “problem” of aging. As Hall writes, West decided to “hitch his star to telomere biology.” The company he formed, Geron, was the first major corporation of the biotech era devoted specifically to life extension, and during the 1990s Geron’s spectacular rise and subsequent slide would exemplify the rocky history of the biotech business. And that indeed is the true subject of Hall’s book. Though the title and cover, with its lurid pop-sci graphics, have been carefully crafted for mass-market appeal, this is a far more serious and important book than either would suggest.
The science of life extension has barely begun, Hall bluntly acknowledges, and it’s not clear that it will even take off. He quotes Hayflick’s own skepticism in his opening pages: Every five years for the past 40, Hayflick notes, people have been making lavish predictions about arresting aging without any noticeable results. “I’m still waiting,” he tells Hall. “And I’m afraid I’m going to be waiting not only through my lifetime, but probably forever.” Having immediately lowered the reader’s expectations on the Methuselah front, Hall devotes the bulk of his book to a detailed analysis of how the hope for longer life has become the basis for a new kind of business built almost solely on hype. Tens of millions of dollars later, Geron has not marketed a single anti-aging product. The same can be said for West’s current company, Advanced Cell Technology.