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Millionaire bankrolls mankind's quest for eternal life

Charles Arthur,Science Editor
Thursday 15 January 1998 00:02 GMT

The search for eternal youth goes on - and some American scientists think they've found it, at least for body cells. The fact that they're wrong hasn't stopped shares leaping and wild claims being made. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, explains.

Miller Quarles, an 83-year-Texan millionaire has one obsession: to live forever. Not as a clone, not through his children; as himself.

"I've got the cells left to put me back to where I was at 45, if only they can be made to divide in time," he said in a recent interview. "I have to stay alive and keep healthy, because statistically, time is running out."

Cell division is where some scientists think the fountain of youth, the Holy Grail of ageing, resides.

Every human cell has a "fuse" called the telomere on its DNA: each time the cell divides, the telomere shortens. When it reaches a set length, its cell simply dies. (In sperm and egg cells, the fuse is simply reset.)

Logic would suggest that preventing the telomere from shortening would give you eternal life. When this idea was presented to Mr Quarles in 1991, he leapt at the chance of funding a private company to take it further. In 1992, the Geron Corporation was set up in Menlo Park, California.

Hence you can imagine his pleasure when this week, a team at Geron Corporation, working with Woodring Wright at the University of Texas, announced that it had managed to make human cells live significantly longer in a laboratory dish than they normally would.

The key to this was producing an enzyme that the body does produce naturally, called telomerase, which prevents the telomere from shortening

"This offers direct evidence that telomere shortening causes cellular senescence," said the team in Science, adding that the long-term implications are "staggering" and that "by all accounts these cells had found their fountain of youth".

Dr Wright added: "This research raises the possibility that we could take a patient's own cells, rejuvenate them, then modify the cells as needed and give them back to the patient to treat a variety of genetic and other diseases."

So can Mr Quarles pop the champagne? Is he going to have his wish of living forever?

Sadly, no. Other experts in ageing point out that telomerase is not the whole story at all. Professor Robert Newbold, at Brunel University, said: "Ageing isn't solely about loss of reproductive capacity. Cells which don't divide, such as muscle and nerves, also die off in time. And rodents' cells are always producing telomerase - their telomeres don't shorten. But they die after a couple of years."

Instead, other scientists reckon that ageing is a cumulative process, in which damage to the powerhouses of the cell - the mitochondria - by "free radical" chemicals, builds up over time. Genetic damage may also cause cells to self-destruct.

"We can safely say that telomerase is not the secret of eternal life," said Professor Newbold. "We think it's actually a belt-and-braces approach to prevent cancer."

A cell which never stops reproducing is indistinguishable from cancer; and the telomeres of cancer cells never burn down. What else would you call two cells that grow unstoppably into 100 billion copies, but cancer?

Still, news of the research sent shares in Geron Corporation up four points on the Nasdaq stock exchange. Mr Quarles may not live forever; but he will die a richer man.

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