Sample text for Merchants of immortality : chasing the dream of human life extension / Stephen S. Hall.

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Counter Prologue
The Never-Ending Life

Several years ago, while spending a weekend in the country with my family,
I stepped out onto the porch of the cabin where we were staying one night
and looked up into the sky. It was unusually clear for a summer night in the
Catskills, and every familiar jot and scrawl of the firmament was writ large—
the Polestar, Little Bear, filaments of the Milky Way strewn like pulled
cotton right down the middle of the dome, the entire landscape "apparelled in
celestial light," as Wordsworth put it in his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality."
A field of tall grass and wildflowers sloped down from the porch, and
hundreds of fireflies blinked on and off in the middle distance, so that the
line where our earthly, mortal light yielded to the celestial became beautifully
blurred in the darkness. As I stood at the rail, I could hear the uniquely
peaceful sound of untroubled sleep behind me in the cabin— my wife and
two children. I scanned the dark sky for a shooting star. I even had a wish
Since I didn"t happen to see a shooting star that night, I don"t
think it will betray any cosmic confidences to reveal what my wish would
have been, especially since it was so predictable. I wished for long, healthy,
productive lives for my family, especially my children. In doing so, I know I
was indulging a desire as ancient as our fascination with the heavens, a
longing as timeless and fierce as the biological instinct to protect one"s
brood. A desire so old, in fact, that it is not only about nature, but a part of
human nature, at least for the only species of life on earth known to be
aware of its own mortality. And as an amateur student of aging, I also knew,
as I stood at that porch rail, that my Darwinian warranty was about to run out.
In strictly evolutionary terms, I"d just about outlived my biological usefulness
to the species and would not much longer enjoy the built-in genetic
protections crafted by eons of natural selection. Indeed, those two cherubs
sleeping inside were the agents of my inevitable demise. Evolution protected
me long enough for me (and my wife) to have children, but became
biologically (and, in a sense, lethally) indifferent to us once we reached a
certain age. From paramecia to primates, from the single-celled denizens of
pond scum to poet laureates, natural selection stops caring about us once
we have lived long enough to reproduce. Evolution in that sense is a strange
ship: it moves ever forward through dark waters, keeping the species alive,
even as it throws each and every member of the species overboard. I was
nearing fifty years of age. My primary care physician had retired and I"d been
forced to switch to a new doctor. His name—no joke—was Dr. Faust. And so
this midsummer night"s wish of mine, stripped of its conflicted humility and
its faux altruism, revealed itself to be transparently self-referential. And here
I"m tempted to add "like most of the wishes of my generation." Because what
I was really saying was: Let us all live a long time, we"re not quite ready
to . . . to . . . I couldn"t bring myself to utter the D word, even in a
conversation with myself. I was content to reiterate the ancient ritual of
submitting a time-honored petition to indifferent gods on dark, starry nights.
In the same way, I feel that an entire generation—a generation
new to mortality, you might say—has been poised to file that same petition
as a kind of generational class-action suit against the laws of nature. Many
of us have been similarly poised at the railing of middle age, in the twilight of
something more permanent than a summer night, launching that same
fervent petition on behalf of our parents, our children, and, of course,
ourselves. I am speaking in part of the baby boomers, 75 million strong in
the United States alone, as well as our similarly entitled post–World War II
siblings spread throughout the developed world. This is a generation, it goes
without saying, that thinks of its petitions as somewhat special, a
generation that is perhaps a little more insistent about answered prayers.
Or so it appears superficially. If you think beyond the
demographic clichés, however, it"s hard to believe with much conviction that
the baby boomers are any more concerned about their mortality than
previous generations and previous cultures. Can we possibly experience
more feral emotions than the hunters and gatherers of 10,000 years ago,
whose very mortality attached to the success of finding their next meal? Can
we summon more urban angst than the average citizen of ancient Rome, who
could expect to live only about twenty or twenty-five years? Can we
honestly argue that we feel a more exalted fear of death than the soldiers of
the greatest generation, teenage boys like my father, huddled in foxholes,
dodging bullets? I have a hard time convincing myself that this is so. What
makes this particular moment so unusual in the age-old posting of these
timeless wishes is that they might actually be answered in an altogether
different way, with altogether unexpected consequences, in the not-too-
distant future. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place for my shooting
star, because in a sense the truly meteoric agency capable of delivering on
these wishes may be found not in the world of cosmology but biology; the
high priests of our secular age, the molecular biologists, have begun to
address mortality in a way no group, no generation, and no society has ever
dreamed of before.
They may not succeed, of course, and the purpose of this book is
not to conflate promising science with the wishful thinking of an entire
generation. It is enough to note that in the last decade the most skilled,
ambitious, and indeed arrogant of our sciences has lined up to tackle
the "problem" of aging (and its faithful sidekick, death) in a way
fundamentally different from that of any previous era of medical intervention.
This is happening at the very same time that an enormous demographic
bulge in our population is burying parents and picking out gray hairs in the
mirror. If nothing else, these trends make for a fascinating convergence of
social desire and scientific ambition; of deeply personal psychological needs
(and fears) and the shamelessly public promissory notes that issue from the
lips of biologists, businesspeople, and other incurable optimists; of the
inevitable decline of the human body (or soma) and the almost alchemical,
regenerative capabilities of bland cells in plastic dishes; of the highest
intellectual aspiration for basic knowledge that contemporary civilization can
muster, alongside the most common and infinite capacity for greed and
personal advantage that has ever sullied the name of human nature. Looking
at this intersection from one perspective, nothing less is at stake than a
partial or nearly total repeal of mortality; from another perspective, we might
be witnessing a postmodern, molecular version of the Fountain of Youth tale,
a spectacle of promise and hubris and failure that will make the Ponce de
León story look like bad summer stock.
Medicine, especially in the last century, has consistently helped
prolong life (or, if you prefer, forestall death), to the point where more people
Prologue 3 in developed societies are living to a greater age than ever before
in human history. Because we"ve done such a spectacular job of minimizing
the agents of premature death—diseases, accidents, poor hygiene, injuries,
not to mention predation, starvation, and exposure—we are living so long
that aging itself has only recently emerged as a subdiscipline of medicine. In
a sense, we didn"t even know aging existed as a biological phenomenon until
we started living well beyond reproductive age, which is really all that
evolution is interested in protecting. Now that we know aging exists as a
separate, degradative phenomenon, and are beginning to understand it, we
naturally want to see if we can tinker with the process. That is what we do,
and that is what I have set out here to chronicle: an account of some of the
people who have begun to revolutionize medicine"s assault on aging, and
the type of science they are doing. Inevitably, my encounters have also led to
a cultural contemplation of what it might mean to us, as individuals and as a
society, to repeal, even partially, the laws of mortality.
For most of the recorded past, humans could expect to live on
average about twenty years (although that number is deceptively low
because of the high incidence of infant and childhood mortality). A century
ago, Americans born in 1900 could expect to live roughly forty-nine years.
Some lived longer, of course, but many still perished at a very young age.
Civilization —in the form of antiseptic medicine, sanitation and public
hygiene, vaccination and other measures—has dramatically increased the
amount of time we can expect to spend on earth. Indeed, as a prominent
gerontologist, Leonard Hayflick, puts it, "Aging is an artifact of civilization."

Some of these thoughts were on my mind on a sunny day in December
2000, when I headed north from San Francisco in a rented car. It was a
professional pilgrimage, in that I was setting out to talk to Hayflick, a
scientist well known within the biological community (indeed, almost
infamous) and yet virtually unknown outside it. In 1961, Hayflick achieved a
rarely attained degree of academic celebrity when he discovered that
normal human cells grown in the laboratory have a finite lifetime—that is,
they are programmed to divide a more-or-less fixed number of times (known
now as the "Hayflick limit") and then simply stop replicating and senesce.
Senescence is a word groaning with metaphoric throw weight in the context
of human gerontology; cellular senescence begins a process of biological
lassitude and decay that ultimately leads to cell death. Hayflick"s discovery
brought together a powerful mix of scientific interests: aging, life span, the
biology of cells, immortality. It put the biology of aging—and therefore the
biology of life and death—squarely in the crosshairs of the biologist"s
Hayflick had sent me meticulous instructions on how to reach his
home—a map marked with arrows, annotated directions of key crossroads,
even aesthetic admonishments ("Go slow on Highway 1 for safety and to
observe the beauty! Careful around blind curves . . ."). As I headed north on
Highway 101 and cut across Mendocino County toward the Pacific Ocean,
it was hard not to notice the everyday auguries of aging and mortality that
color the way in which we view the world, even from a car window. Outside
Guerneville, the road curved past—deferred to, actually —a number of
towering redwoods crowding the asphalt. Some of those massive and long-
lived creatures have lorded over this landscape for centuries (and yet they
represent a lesson in complexity and paradox as well as longevity, for as
Hayflick has pointed out in one of his books, only a tiny fraction of their
cells are actually alive, the rest inanimate pulp). At another point, within
spitting distance of the Russian River, several birds that I took to be
buzzards—high-shouldered, glowering gatekeepers of the afterlife —perched
on a wire, waiting, their patience seemingly informed by the knowledge that
they never have to wait too long. Even when you weren"t exactly looking for
them, the signs and symbols of life and death were everywhere, just as they
are every waking day, gentle but persistent reminders that mostly blend into
the background of our busy days.
That"s what made this a personal pilgrimage, too. At the time, I
had just turned forty-nine and was about to trip an important threshold on
my own actuarial odometer. My parents, both in their seventies, were alive
and in reasonably good health. I had a daughter who had just turned five, a
son soon to turn three. Those little details would normally be irrelevant
intrusions in a scientific narrative; in this one, however, they form a kind of
background matte to the portrait of science that occupies the foreground. It is
our children, especially, whose lives may well be altered by this new science.
Even without being crassly self-interested, it is impossible not to think
about the science possibly to come in very personal terms.
In conversations with Hayflick and other scientists over the next
few days and in subsequent months, I heard outlined, in sketchy but
tantalizing Prologue 5 detail, a medical future so bold in its ambitions, so
profound in its potential impact, that if even a tenth of the promises pan out,
it will fundamentally change how we think about life and what it means to be
human. There was talk of genes that, when properly manipulated, might
significantly extend life span. There was talk of stem cell therapy, a
celebrated new technology that holds the hope of replacing aging or failing
or diseased organs and other body parts. I even talked to several people
whose cells were being used to clone them, in an attempt to create a short-
lived, utilitarian embryo that could be harvested for stem cells and, perhaps,
immunologically compatible cells and organs. In almost every instance, a
biotechnology company had been formed, or was in the works, with dreams
of commercializing a technology that would extend life or regenerate human
tissues and cells. Indeed, the catchphrase of the day was "regenerative
medicine," referring to a discipline that had its own meetings, its own
funding and supportive foundations, its own ambitious agenda, and its own
little swarm of bioethicists and journalists flitting around like gnats, trying to
figure out what was going on and what it all meant. And it was happening
very fast: on the ride to Hayflick"s home, the news on the radio had been
dominated by the still-unresolved Florida vote count in the 2000 presidential
election. I think it is safe to say that no one, during those weeks of
uncertainty, could have predicted that the new president"s first major
televised address to the nation would focus on, of all things, embryonic stem
As I traveled around and heard these stories, it was impossible
not to think back to that moment on the porch, to hear a little voice in my
head say, with all the requisite self-interest of a baby boomer: What"s in it
for me? What will this mean in my lifetime? Will I live longer, or better?
What"s in it for my parents, who have both survived to about the predicted life
expectancy of people born now (79.5 years for women, 74.1 for men in this
country) but are not without medical problems that will need addressing
sooner or later? And most of all, what will it mean for my children, for all
children? When they reach middle age and beyond, will they indeed avail
themselves of a vastly different pharmacopoeia, a spectrum of treatments
that could well include cellular therapies, replacement organs grown from
scratch, enzymes that immortalize cells? Just how satisfying will that
longer life ultimately be, for myself and my children? And what will it mean if
our society becomes disproportionately weighted on the elderly end?
It is too soon to provide any definitive answers to these questions,
but it"s a good time to begin asking them. And, as I quickly began to learn,
there are plenty of strong and conflicting opinions about this future, beginning
with the man who, in a sense, started it all.

Early the next morning, I followed the final instructions—the last of three
pages—to the Hayflick residence, a handsome two-story contemporary
home on a little cul-de-sac overlooking the ocean. The natural wildness of the
site was spectacular, but not nearly as spectacular as the scientific story
Leonard Hayflick told inside. We spoke for about seven hours (the fruits of
that conversation form the basis of chapter 1), but one moment particularly
sticks in my mind.
It was late in the afternoon, after many hours of talk, and Hayflick
was sitting on an ottoman in his living room. The silvery light off the Pacific,
muted and dulled by high clouds on this December day, nonetheless
seemed to ricochet off the white walls and high ceilings of Hayflick"s home.
As soft and cool as the afternoon light was, Leonard Hayflick was building up
an indignant head of steam. To those who know him, including many who
admire his remarkable career in science, the fact that he can still, at the
age of seventy-two, climb up on his high horse is no surprise; he"s never
been one to hide his opinions, and for much of his life he"s expressed those
opinions without reservation and lived with the consequences. What
provoked his ire on this day was a question I had asked. I admit to baiting
him a little, because I suspected what his reaction might be, but I hadn"t
quite expected the magnitude of the reply. I asked about a single word that
has increasingly crept into routine scientific discourse, into newspaper
headlines, into New Age wish lists: immortality.
Hayflick has been a prominent cell biologist for four decades and
is a former president of the Gerontological Society of America, so I naturally
wanted to know what he thought about a stream of recent public
statements by respectable scientists regarding the prospects of significantly
extending the human life span through the related technologies loosely
known as regenerative medicine, and the increasing use of the I word. (I can"t
claim to have come to this discussion with entirely clean hands; about a year
earlier I had written an article for the New York Times Magazine about the
discovery and commercialization of embryonic stem cells, and the
illustrations—not my handiwork, I hasten to add—depicted octogenarians
frolicking on scooters and in convertibles, accompanied by the words "Racing
Toward Immortality.")
Several days before I spoke with Hayflick, for example, the first
annual meeting of the Society for Regenerative Medicine convened in
Washington, D.C. In his remarks to the group, William Haseltine, a cigar-
smoking and ostentatiously optimistic bio-mogul who serves as chairman of
the company Human Genome Sciences, predicted that several emerging
technologies —stem cell therapy, tissue engineering, and the use of gene-
related proteins—would change the way medicine is practiced, and would
forever change our expectations of how long we might live. More to the
point, Haseltine had been quoted several times as predicting that twenty-first-
century medicine would achieve a kind of "practical immortality."
Perhaps inevitably, the West Coast version of this genre of
meeting took the form of the annual gathering of the Extropy Institute in
Berkeley, a meeting attended by several excellent hard-core molecular
biologists and later amusingly chronicled by Brian Alexander in Wired
magazine. Michael Rose, an evolutionary biologist at the University of
California at Irvine, was quoted as saying, "I am now working on
immortality . . .Who gives a fuck what people consider flaky! If it"s the truth,
it"s the truth." Cynthia Kenyon, a well-respected molecular biologist at the
University of California at San Francisco, spoke of her work identifying a
"grim-reaper gene" and a "fountain of youth gene" in nematodes, and was
quoted as predicting that dramatic life-span extension would become a reality
in the twenty-first century. Michael West, the head of a company called
Advanced Cell Technology, did not attend the meeting but was definitely
there in spirit. "We are close to transferring the immortal characteristics of
germ cells to our bodies and essentially eliminating aging," he told
Wired. "That sounds spectacular, but I believe those are the facts." In what
passed for scientific caution and restraint, Calvin Harley, head scientist at the
biotech company Geron, said he believed it was not inevitable that
our "somas"—our bodies — are dead-end carriers. "We are all born young,"
he said. "There is a capacity to have an immortal propagation of cells. The
way we have evolved is to go from germ line to germ line, with our somas the
dead-end carriers." "But,"he added, "that is not inevitable."
As I recited each remark to Hayflick, I could see him alternately
stiffen and squirm. "How shall I put it?" he began after a long pause, clearly
offended by the hubris of his colleagues, several of whom he considers
close friends. "I"ve been in this field longer than any of the people that you"ve
mentioned, which," he conceded with a laugh, "probably doesn"t mean a
helluva lot. But I"ll say it anyhow. Every five years, for the past forty years,
there have been pronouncements made by people with names other than
those that you mentioned, and with expectations identical to the ones that
those people made. I"m still waiting. And I"m afraid I"m going to wait not
only through my lifetime, but probably forever.
"The problem," he continued, shifting into second gear of his
dudgeon, "is that there is a failure to understand the universality of a
phenomenon. If they can show me the simplest way to prevent aging in
their own automobiles, to have them live for a hundred years, then there will
be some reason to buy into the biology argument. But they cannot do the
simple thing, like keep their cars from aging for a twenty-year period, to say
nothing about biology. And furthermore, what makes them think that the
molecules that compose living things are any different from the molecules
that compose inanimate objects, in respect to deterioration over time? And
finally, and probably the most telling argument, which will never ever surface
in articles like that, is the stupid question, Why do you want to do it in the
first place? What is the benefit? People have this underlying, tacit belief
that increasing human longevity, or curing aging, or however you want to
characterize it, is a good. They"ve never asked themselves or never
described what that good is. And I challenge all of them to provide a single
scenario that makes sense. Any scenario that they"re liable to describe will
come closer to science fiction than probable scientific reality."
"But," I replied, "it is in the air now."
"It"s been in the air since human history has been written in
caves!" Hayflick almost shouted. "It"s always been in the air. It"s no different
between now and any other period of time. There just happen to be more
people involved. More people who haven"t taken the time to understand this
field, unfortunately."
Hayflick had especially unkind words for the genetics of aging, a
field that has recently exploded with discoveries both in model organisms
like fruit flies and in human centenarians. "There are no genes for aging," he
insisted. "I"ll say that categorically, and I"ll defend it despite what you have
heard and will hear from Cynthia Kenyon and others. People like Kenyon
and Leonard Guarente and others are not working in the field of aging at all.
They"re working in the field of, to be liberal, longevity determination—
Prologue 9 to be more specific, developmental biology. Aging is a
deteriorative process, as most people should know, and those folks are not
working with that aspect of the animals they"re working with that involves
the deteriorative changes that occur during aging. They"re manipulating
biological development with the beautiful experiments that they"re doing, and
there"s no denying that and I"m not speaking to their experimental design. I"m
speaking to their understanding of what aging is and what aging isn"t. The
fact is that everything will, whatever the hell you do. Everything in the
universe ages."
Hayflick has earned the right to express these opinions, because
he arguably laid the groundwork for the entire field of molecular gerontology —
the notion that aging, its causes as well as potential remedies, might
fruitfully be attacked at the level of cell biology and molecular intervention.
And he is well versed in the demographics and statistics of longevity
determination; in fact, not long after my visit he became so infuriated by the
reductionist hubris of some of his fellow biologists that he teamed up with
gerontological demographer S. Jay Olshansky and dozens of other prominent
aging experts to prepare a manifesto decrying the misguided messages
imparted to the public about antiaging research.
The would-be practitioners of "practical immortality" were spinning
out a far more optimistic, revolutionary view of the future. A couple of days
after visiting Hayflick, I paid a visit to the laboratory of Cynthia Kenyon at
UCSF. Kenyon looks younger than her forty-six years and, despite
locutions that sometimes flirt with Valley Girl diction, possesses a breadth
and depth of knowledge that is immediately apparent and instantly
intimidating. She cut her teeth working under several of the most celebrated
molecular biologists of the last half-century, including Sydney Brenner at
Cambridge and Mark Ptashne at Harvard, and has narrowed her focus to
several intriguing genes in a small worm known as Caenorhabditis elegans.
These tiny nematodes, when viewed through a microscope, appear to have
no other purpose in life but to endlessly carve sinuous arabesques in their
growth media, their movements mesmerizing and beautiful. Whatever their
purpose in life, Kenyon and her colleagues have found a way to extend that
life—quadruple it, in some cases—by altering a single gene. She is
unapologetically exuberant about the possibilities this might hold for human
biology and human medicine.
"You know, if you look at an old worm under a microscope, it has
all these tissues, and the tissues have all our genes in them—you know,
myosin or transmitters, whatever—and the worm looks awful. And then you
change one gene and the whole worm, all the tissues, looks good. So you"d
never think you could do that with one gene. And once you see it happening
in a worm—the impossible has already happened. What you would think
would be absolutely impossible is not impossible. You can do that. Now,
whether you can do it in a human and blah-blah-blah? Well, the big jump
has been taken. You can do it in an animal. That"s the main thing. Whether
or not you can do it in a human? Maybe, sure, I could see maybe you
couldn"t for some reason," she said, pausing to give this possibility its
due. "But I doubt it." Although she hedged her words scientifically during our
conversation, she has not hedged her bets entrepreneurially. In the fall of
2000, she formed a company with MIT scientist Leonard Guarente that has
as its ultimate goal the creation of medicines that would extend the human
life span. One venture capitalist with whom I spoke called it "the hottest
technology around right now."
In all the years she spent doing elegant experiments on the
genetics of nematodes, Kenyon told me, hardly anyone outside the
scientific community paid any attention to what she had accomplished. But
as soon as she began to tackle the molecular biology of aging, she was
inundated with requests for interviews. "Night and day," she said, "night and
day. The public is absolutely fascinated by aging. They don"t want to get old.
And you can see—read Shakespeare. Read the sonnets. They"re all about
aging. A lot of people have an interest in biology that really doesn"t extend
much further than their desire to cure a disease, I think. But no one likes to
get old, and no one likes to see their parents get old, or their
grandparents . . .You know, it"s just . . ."—and she reached for the right
sentiment—"it"s a very, very powerful human desire, I think, not to get old.
And you really feel that in a big way when you study aging." That emotion
has become tethered to the
most sophisticated science of our time.
Longevity genes, replacement body parts, stem cells,
immortalizing enzymes—you won"t find reference to any of them in the
sonnets of Shakespeare. But Kenyon"s remark inspired me to go back and
read the sonnets; I found that she was right. There in abundance you will
find the timeless, anticipatory human sadness about aging, about "winter"s
ragged hand" and "that churl death," that, four hundred years later, fires our
social fascination with the topic. We prick our ears at any breakthrough,
whether marketed by clairvoyants or molecular biologists, that purports to
arrest or Prologue 11 reverse the inevitable process of aging, or even to
extend the human life span in such a way that it no longer seems
preposterous to speak of a certain, practical immortality.
But as Hayflick"s exasperation suggests, there is an abiding
division and tension, even among biologists, on whether the human life span
can be extended through better biology. It is a debate that is going to be
played out before an extremely attentive audience over the next decade or

In my journey up to Sea Ranch, I later realized, I had unintentionally
followed an earlier pilgrim, someone who has perhaps understood the link
between the emotional, cultural longings for an extended life span and the
science that might deliver it better than anyone else in this story.
In the summer of 1992, a young man named Michael West drove
those same roads, took those same cliff-hugging turns past Monterey pine
and Douglas fir, passed that same wild and ravishing seascape on the way
to visit Leonard Hayflick. For West, this truly was a pilgrimage, a journey to
pay homage to a master, for Hayflick was the scientist whose work had
prepared the bed in which all of West"s dreams had begun to take root. A few
months earlier, in the fall of 1991,West had blown away a roomful of jaded
West Coast venture capitalists with his vision of creating a business to
develop medicines that would treat the process of aging, based on several
cutting- edge molecular technologies just then coming out of academic labs.
The money people had watered the seeds of West"s ambitious ideas with
millions of dollars, and by March 1992, he had a company on paper. It was
called Geron, and it was the first biotechnology company explicitly devoted to
the molecular biology of aging.
West had much on his mind in those days—hiring scientists,
finding lab space, riding herd on research, scouting out new technologies.
But one of the first things he did was drive up to see Hayflick. And Hayflick
was thrilled to have him. "He spent the weekend up here," Hayflick
recalled, "and stayed in the guest room. He was so riveted by this concept.
I took him out to dinner and he hardly touched his food, he was so busy
talking about what he wanted to do. It was very refreshing to see somebody
who— I"ve known a few scientists who burn with a white-hot flame, and
Mike is one of them."
They talked all weekend long—both are excellent talkers and
storytellers. They talked about aging research. They talked about
personalities in the field. They even talked about some of the classic
medical textbooks in the field of aging, and exchanged copies of first editions
of these seminal books. Hayflick showed West the famous letter he had
received from a Nobel laureate, rejecting for publication a 1961 paper that
subsequently became one of the most widely cited in twentieth-century
science. "He was really one of the first young people to enter the field who
had a sincere interest in the history of aging research, and that was
extremely impressive," Hayflick told me. "I thought to myself, "Here"s a fellow
to be cultivated."
"It"s immodest of me to say it," Hayflick continued, "but he knew
the history of the field, and he was fascinated by my discovery of the limits
on cell replication in culture"—the discovery, that is, that cells grown in a
lab dish don"t, and can"t, live forever. "And he just wanted to talk to me about
that. How did I discover it? What went through my mind? What were my
views on the company, on its direction, on people who might be hired? I
think that weekend stimulated him, because he knew he could rely on me to
provide help, suggest people to contact, and so on." Hayflick paused here,
then added, in a speculation rife with implications, that he might also have
served as "kind of a father figure, maybe" for West.
That speculation may actually get closer to the reality of things,
not least because it hints at the way in which that relationship may have
influenced a pitched public-policy debate nearly a decade later. While there
is no question about the crucial role Leonard Hayflick played in the early
days of molecular biology"s attack on aging, and how his early experiments
have inspired a fabulously productive area of contemporary science, what"s
far less appreciated is how he also served as a role model and inspiration
for Michael West—not simply for his science, although that was important,
but for his attitude, his temperamental readiness to defy authority, and his
willingness to pay a price, an enormous and almost unconscionable price,
to do something he believed was right, even when everyone else in the world
believed he was wrong. And it"s quite possible that after his weekend at
Sea Ranch, West appreciated—as does almost anyone who speaks at
length with Hayflick—a deeper moral to Hayflick"s story. Although he can be
stubborn and antagonistic and even bombastic, perhaps Leonard Hayflick"s
greatest sin and scientific transgression was that he was way ahead of his
time. It was a lesson that West, who shares many of the same qualities,
took to heart.

Copyright © 2003 by Stephen S. Hall. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Longevity Popular works