By Joan O'C. Hamilton
MERCHANTS OF IMMORTALITY
Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension
By Stephen S. Hall
Houghton Mifflin -- 439pp -- $25
To me, fantastic science has been only part of the story of the biotechnology industry. An equally compelling aspect is that the industry's fundamental aim is to yank the Grim Reaper's chain.
For decades, biotech evangelists have spun hope into gold, constantly declaring themselves to be on the brink of dramatic, life-saving medical advances. More often than not, plans haven't panned out -- or have had a more limited payoff than first imagined. Then, entrepreneurs have come up with new schemes, describing why even newer discoveries put them in an even better position to find cures. Over time, this approach has raised huge amounts of investment capital and overcome many setbacks. By the early 1990s, numerous biotech companies, such as Amgen (AMGN ) Genentech (DNA ), and others, had developed good drugs and vaccines that extended or saved lives.
At the same time, however, some scientists and entrepreneurs began openly exploring the idea that cheating death one limited advance at a time was the hard way to go: Instead, they sought to short-circuit specific aging-related genes that appear to hijack the healthy, vibrant tissues of our youth. That work led, in turn, to attempts to harness fetal and embryonic cells that scientists hoped could rejuvenate or replace diseased or worn-out body parts.
This modern band of Ponce de Leóns comes to life in the intensely researched and well-written Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension by ace science writer Stephen S. Hall, author of Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene and other books. Hall illuminates the science and the scientists, their financial as well as ego-based motivations, and the often capricious politics that accompany their efforts.
This is an ambitious book. At times Hall includes too many themes and too many minor players. But these flaws don't lessen the rich and nuanced understanding he brings to endeavors that embrace some of society's most coveted dreams and its thorniest ethical debates.
For starters, Hall makes the complicated and sometimes tedious mechanics of both biology and lab work come alive. Consider his poetic treatment of humble nematodes known as Caenorhabditis elegans: "When viewed through a microscope," he writes, the worms "appear to have no purpose in life but to endlessly carve sinuous arabesques in their growth media, their movements mesmerizing and beautiful." Studying these creatures, a team of University of California at San Francisco scientists led by Cynthia J. Kenyon made a remarkable discovery: By altering a single gene in the worm's body, they could quadruple its life span. "You change one gene and the whole worm, all the tissues, looks good," she enthuses. While she realizes some scientists may disagree, Kenyon tells Hall that she believes the same sort of fairly simple genetic jujitsu might prolong human life, too.
Hall has an obvious passion for science, but he is realistic about how humans and university and corporate labs work: Both are driven by egos and money. For example, when research on aging starts getting hot, he notes, "soon by land, sea, and air, the field is invaded by researchers scrambling for a piece of the action, pursuing their intellectual curiosity with all the decorum and dignity of those 19th-century gentlemen geologists who pursued their curiosity about rumors of gold in California."
Merchants of Immortality profiles several fascinating figures in the world of aging research, most notably Leonard Hayflick, the father of "molecular gerontology," who first discovered that cells are preprogrammed to replicate a finite number of times. There's also Michael D. West, founder of Geron Corp. and now CEO of Advanced Cell Technology. Once a fervent religious fundamentalist, West did an about-face, embracing evolutionary biology and becoming one of the most aggressive proponents of human cloning and fetal-cell research. Hall calls West a "Zelig of modern biology" who has yet to discover or shepherd any real advances to market but who repeatedly appears at congressional hearings and press conferences making provocative claims about controversial research. West is not alone in this behavior: Many biotech executives feel the need to be promotional because of high burn rates and slow progress.
Finally, Hall raises many important philosophical issues. He makes clear that we are a long ways from seriously lengthening our life spans or being able to order a new ticker from sparehumanparts.com. However, 75 million baby boomers' force of will, along with the determination of scientists to push knowledge forward, are likely to overcome political hurdles blocking promising research. That will raise such questions as: What are we willing to do, and to spend, to help people live to be 150 -- even if much of the last third of that life span may involve an endless array of soft foods and a search for attendants who speak loudly and slowly? Hall's book provides powerful, well-written background for those discussions.
Hamilton is a formerly young technology writer.