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“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 Magazine and 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.

But while products have not been exactly flowing out of these labs, West has proved himself a master promoter, both for his own ventures and for the industry as a whole. A former evangelical Christian who converted to evolutionary biology, West has brought to biotechnology the same kind of fanatical zeal he once reserved for his religious beliefs. He leaps out of these pages like an old-time preacher pouring his very soul into his message of salvation through science. Evoking St. Paul, West sees his companies’ work as an extension of the Christian mission to alleviate suffering — in his own eyes he might just be the 13th apostle.

If West has not yet turned a profit for his investors, his companies have nonetheless pioneered several of the most controversial scientific developments of the past half-century, notably embryonic stem-cell (ESC) research and human cloning. After Bush’s ban on the use of federal funds for any research that would destroy a human embryo, investigation of ESCs has been left to the largely unregulated private sphere, and no company has pursued this work more aggressively than Advanced Cell Technology. The second half of Hall’s book chronicles the history of stem-cell research and the associated work on cloning, both with animals and humans, including the intense moral and religious debates that have so shaped the political landscape around these technologies. Ironically, Hall reveals that hostility toward embryonic stem-cell research may be as much a result of West’s relentless public advocacy as any of its opponents’ arguments against. Had West taken a more gentle approach, Hall suggests, the debate may not have become so acrimonious. A bill currently before the Senate (now in consideration by the committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions) would ban the use of all cloning, including the medical use of therapeutic cloning; if that passes, many scientists believe that West will have played a key role in turning politicians away.

Merchants of Immortality is not the book its publishers are trying to sell. It’s a far deeper story than that, and will probably turn up on award lists at the end of the year. Deservedly so, but precisely because of its meticulous reporting it is also unlikely to wind up on many best-seller lists. It’s a long and at times arduous read which often overwhelms with the sheer volume of detail. We may, however, be grateful that someone as thorough as Hall has done the legwork; when future historians reflect back on these first anarchic decades of the biotech revolution, this will be an invaluable text. It’s one for the record.

MERCHANTS OF IMMORTALITY: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension | By STEPHEN S. HALL | Houghton Mifflin | 448 pages | $25 hardcover