LEF Magazine April 1998
Contemplating The 'Fountain Of Youth'
At Life Extension, we've been contemplating the prospect of discovering the "fountain of youth" ever since the Foundation was launched in 1980. We've done so because the achievement of an indefinitely long and healthy life span is at the core of our mission. That's why we've been funding innovative anti-aging research, and why our major long-term goal is to develop therapies to extend the healthy human life span.
So, it was with a sense of "What took you so long?" that we greeted the recent announcement by scientists at Geron Corporation that they had induced normal human cells to become immortal without turning into cancer cells. And it was with great glee that we reacted to mass media remarks by scientists that Geron's research could lead to therapies to enable us to live in good health for centuries, even though we're less than confident that this will happen.
Mainstream scientists and media pundits have never taken the concept of discovering a fountain of youth very seriously. They've scoffed at the idea of controlling aging and extending healthy life span as a pipe dream, and come up with one reason after another why aging control isn't possible or desirable. Thus, it is interesting to see how they reacted to a scientific story (on the Geron breakthrough, as reported in Science magazine's issue of January 16) that could actually lead to an extended life span.
Barbara Walters' reaction on ABC's 20/20, also on January 16, was pure shock. At the end of the Geron story, she exclaimed:
"But this will revolutionize our whole society. We have enough problems now dealing with people as they get older. You mean . . . within five or 10 years, there'll be people like you and me who can live to be a 150?"
To that, co-host Hugh Downs responded, "And the hope is that at 150 we'd be like somebody today at 75 to 80. That would be nice if it worked that way." This was followed by Walters saying, "This is . . . extraordinary, and that's an understatement."
While Downs and Walters were contemplating a much longer life span, Woodring Wright, a cell biologist at Southwest Medical Center in Dallas, whose research team participated in the Geron research, was quick to deny that they are anywhere near achieving a fountain of youth.
"Unequivocally, I would say this would not allow you to live forever," said Wright, in a response to Reuter's News Service. "This is not going to be a pill that allows you to live longer any time soon." He said that the natural process that kills off cells is just one component of aging. "It's like when you have a car and at 80,000 miles you replace the engine. You haven't made the car immortal. On average, the car is going to run longer, but then the transmission is going to go out, or the brakes, or something else."
What Wright didn't say is that many gerontologists believe that replacing the "engine" could indeed lead to an extended life span, if you replace the engine that powers a fundamental mechanism of aging. It's far from clear whether the Geron breakthrough will lead to such an engine, but it's also premature to say that it won't.
In The New York Times of January 20, cancer researcher Robert Weinberg denied that telomere length has anything to do with why people die, or that it would be possible to extend human life by lengthening telomeres with telomerase: "What limits human life span," said Weinberg, "is disease, especially cancer...." What he failed to say, however, is that the risk of cancer (and other age-related diseases) goes up dramatically as a person grows older and many cells die out, and that telomere shortening is one explanation for the death of some of these cells. In short, old people die of diseases primarily because of the aging process.
In another recent New York Times article, on January 13, the answer to the question: "Can Life Span Be Extended?" was "Biologists Offer Some Hope." Meanwhile, an article in the February issue of Penthouse magazine contends that we can achieve physical immortality within 30 years, and that a life span of 250 years or more is on the horizon.
Clearly, the idea of extending the human life span is on everybody's mind, whether they believe it will happen soon or that it will never happen. There's been an explosion in the number of media stories in recent months about research leading to the control of human aging, reflecting the release of some exciting new research findings. These stories are a sign that the life-extension revolution we've been calling for all these years is well underway.