Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ., 23 July 2003
Vol. 2003, Issue 29, p. bb2
[DOI: 10.1126/sageke.2003.29.bb2]


Advanced Sell Technology

A review by Chris Mooney;2003/29/bb2

Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension
By Stephen S. Hall
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2003. 448 pp. $25.00 ISBN 0618095241

With Merchants of Immortality, his recent book on the new scientific discoveries that could extend human life and the companies that have capitalized on them, New York Times magazine writer Stephen S. Hall has provided a dense account that nevertheless leaves crucial territory underexplored. The first chapter of Merchants describes gerontologist Leonard Hayflick's work in the late 1950s producing vaccines in fetal cell cultures, which led to the discovery of the "Hayflick limit," the built-in wall that many cells hit after a fixed number of divisions. Hall then follows Hayflick and his protégé, biotech entrepreneur Michael West, on a tour of the politics and personalities that have dominated the science of stem cells, therapeutic cloning, and telomeres, the regions at the end of chromosomes that wear down each time a cell duplicates. Other areas relevant to the "dream of human life extension," particularly the ongoing quest for so-called longevity genes, receive relatively short shrift. Hall quotes Hayflick's dismissal of the genetics of aging at the outset of the book ("there are no genes for aging"), and one gets the sense that when approaching this field, the author inclined toward his subject's viewpoint.

The narrative of Merchants of Immortality centers on people rather than scientific theories or advances. For example, Hall introduces us to Alexy M. Olovnikov, the Russian scientist whose speculative theory of "marginotomy" first explained how telomere shortening could bring cells to the Hayflick limit. We also read about Ali Brivanlou, a Rockefeller University embryologist who postponed embryonic stem cell research for 2 years until political debate over those cells was resolved. But when it comes to personalities, Hall mostly showcases the flamboyant West, an antievolutionist turned immortality chaser with a propensity to oversell his various companies' scientific findings. "Whatever else might be said about West," writes Hall, "his personal journey from creationist to biotech prophet represents one of the most extraordinary intellectual transformations ever to influence a national debate in this country."

To a significant extent, West--who built one company (Geron) to pursue telomere research and another (Advanced Cell Technology) to pursue stem cells and therapeutic cloning--controls the shape and direction of Hall's story. West does not, however, control the storyteller. Hall relentlessly critiques West's "self-mythologizing" tendencies, as well as his habit of publicizing scientific findings before he publishes them. Merchants of Immortality serves as an invaluable case study on the sociology of scientific hype, describing in detail how corporate motives and media feeding frenzies lead to the overselling of promising, but limited, research. A key example comes in the telomere area. "Scientists who championed the view that shortened telomeres 'caused' aging were courted and quoted by science journalists," writes Hall. Meanwhile, more cautious experts such as Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, "tended to see their opinions appended, if at all, to the subterranean plumbing feeding the 'fountain of youth' stories."

Hall also chronicles how biotech companies have constrained scientific inquiry through material transfer agreements and other legal restrictions, a situation that has harmed research on both telomeres and stem cells. A central problem, as Hall sees it, is that abortion politics in the United States have driven human fetal and embryo research into the private sector, where entrepreneurs have pursued it for profit without federal oversight or safeguards. This situation has helped people such as West--who "operated in the cracks of a convoluted logic warped by abortion politics, in which it was okay to destroy embryos in the private sector but not in the public"--to draw funding-starved scientists into commercial research agreements. Hall helpfully contrasts this situation with that in the United Kingdom, where in 1990 Parliament created the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to regulate public and private research alike and enforce ethical standards.

All of this analysis provides telling insights into the state of biological research in the United States today. Still, one might justifiably ask, Is Hall's book really about life extension? Regenerative medicine using embryonic stem cells, from cloned embryos or otherwise, has the potential to prolong life indirectly, just as ordinary medical advances do. But Hall curiously slights more direct findings that have shown some initial promise: calorie restriction, for example, or the discovery of longevity genes in worms, flies, mice, and the hint of similar ones in human centenarians.

A brief chapter in Merchants of Immortality covers Elixir, a company founded by two SAGE KE Scientific Advisory Board members, Cynthia Kenyon and Leonard Guarente, to explore cellular pathways that can extend life in a range of model organisms. But by this point in the book, Hayflick has trashed the Kenyon-Guarente approach. Work by Thomas Perls, who studies centenarians, receives only a single mention. As a writer who reports regularly on the science of aging, I was surprised to find so few of my sources interviewed by Hall: We hear nothing from George Martin of the University of Washington, Seattle (SAGE KE's editor in chief), for example, or Richard Miller of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (another SAGE KE Scientific Advisory Board member). Another leading expert, Caleb "Tuck" Finch of the University of Southern California, was interviewed by Hall but appears only in connection with West. The present-day activities of the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging are also absent from this narrative. To his credit, in public statements since the publication of Merchants of Immortality Hall has emphasized the search for longevity genes much more than the book does, suggesting that the topic has grabbed his interest.

Hall's book misses another seemingly obvious subject as well. For a work centrally concerned with "the mesmerizing allure of 'immortalization' as a commercial concept," I found it striking that Merchants of Immortality barely discusses the burgeoning life-extension industry currently thriving in the United States, whose wares consist largely of scientifically untested dietary supplements. If the world of unregulated corporate biotech can be a "Wild West," the world of unregulated herbalist pseudoscience is pure wilderness.

Hall's book contains passages of sharp writing--"I had heard biotech executives wax poetic about their products and even their proprietary technologies, but never before about ancient gods," he writes of a Mike West presentation--and rewarding insights. For example, Hall argues that Bush's naysaying bioethics czar Leon Kass is himself a "merchant of immortality": Kass needs to hype the science of life extension, which he inaccurately labels a quest for immortality, in order to be able to stoke sufficient moral outrage. In the political sphere, Hall also exposes the cowardice of the Clinton Administration with regard to embryo research, as well as the fraudulence of the Bush stem cell "compromise," which promised many more viable stem cell lines than actually exist.

In the end, however, Merchants of Immortality is driven by the powerful personalities of Michael West and Leonard Hayflick. This choice presents obvious dramatic benefits, but it can also skew the subject. Hall has written a first-rate book, but when it comes to the journalism of "immortality," he hasn't cornered the market.

July 23, 2003

Chris Mooney is a writer in Berkeley, California. He, too, is a merchant of immortality; he writes about the science of aging and life extension for SAGE Crossroads, SAGE KE's policy-oriented sister site.

Citation: C. Mooney, Advanced Sell Technology. Sci. SAGE KE 2003, bb2 (23 July 2003);2003/29/bb2

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