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November 2003

Cellular Immortality
An Exclusive Interview with Stem Cell Pioneer Michael D. West, Ph.D.
Dr. Gregory M. Fahy

In his new book The Immortal Cell, Dr. Michael West describes the meaning of cellular immortality and the implications of the “time machine” of therapeutic cloning for life extension. The following interview with Dr. West was conducted by Dr. Gregory M. Fahy.

Life Extension: Dr. West, your book is not about one subject, but many. It’s the story of how the biology of immortality may eventually conquer the biology of aging, and what happens when science moves faster than political and religious leaders can accept. It’s an impassioned philosophical statement about life, death, and immortality. What was your purpose in writing it?

Dr. Michael West: I wanted to communicate why stem cell technology is so important from both a scientific and a personal point of view. On the science side, I hoped to communicate the excitement of the research community about the embryonic stem cell—the immortal cell, a cell capable of branching into any of the cell types in the body and effectively treating today’s “incurable” conditions, including aging. On the personal side, I can imagine the day when thousands of people with various diseases, particularly age-related diseases, can benefit from these discoveries.

LE: What impact do you think the book may have in promoting greater understanding of and public support for therapeutic cloning?

MW: My hope is that the book will explain why scientists working in the field are so impassioned about moving the technology forward rapidly—why, from our perspective, therapeutic cloning is an ethical and appropriate use of technology. There’s been so much disinformation circulated by the opposition that I think it’s important to clearly voice what we see as the facts, to allow readers to make up their own minds as to where they stand on the issue.

LE: In your book you say that embryonic stem cell research is going to “unleash one of the fiercest battles between religion and science in recent history.”

MW: I think the backlash in the religious community stems from one primary and one less significant reason. The primary reason is that this is seen as fresh ground to fight over in the abortion debate. The abortion debate, at least in the U.S., has been largely stalemated. Now enters the embryonic stem cell. These cells come from the embryo when it is still a microscopic ball of cells that has not yet begun to develop, has not attached to the uterus, and is not a pregnancy. The “pro-life” community sees this as an opportunity to win the abortion debate. If they could cause a new law to be passed that would ban the use or production of cells from pre-implantation embryos, then they would have achieved a checkmate in the abortion debate, because if the pre-implantation embryo has a right to life and cannot be destroyed, then certainly a developing fetus in a woman’s uterus—an actual developing human being—could not be destroyed for any purpose either.

A second reason I think some members of the religious community have attacked embry-onic stem cell technologies is use of the word “immortal.” By “immortal,” we mean that these cells are not programmed to age and can replicate indefinitely. They have potential immortality in that they’re part of the reproductive lineage of cells that connects the generations. This is the result of the nearly magical ability of germ-line cells to escape the inevitable aging of the body. In my book I call the germ-line cell the immortal cell. But use of the word “immortal” to describe these cells at the root of the immortal substratum of life, and to envision their use to fight the eternal battle against aging and death, may seem to intrude into what has historically been the province of religion. This talk about science potentially being able to extend the life span, or even about the possibility of immortality itself, is threatening to some people.

LE: It doesn’t seem logical that a law against therapeutic cloning and a law permitting abortion can co-exist. But can’t the view of a fetus as a person and the view of a pre-implantation embryo as not being a person co-exist in principle?

MW: Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator from Utah and an ardent advocate of the pro-life position, made an effort to understand the issues behind therapeutic cloning. He interviewed researchers in the field and requested scientific papers. And after, as he described it, a thoughtful and prayerful consideration of the issues in-volved, he came out in favor of therapeutic cloning. He argued, as we do from a scientific perspective, that a microscopic ball of cells that has not yet begun to develop, that has not yet individualized—that is, that has not yet committed to being one person, or two—is not a person for the purpose of writing law.

LE: It’s encouraging that Sen. Hatch was able to travel that journey, but a lot of your opposition seems to come in the form of sloganeering and jeering.

MW: It does seem that use of the word “immortality” has resulted in more derisive rhetoric than thoughtful commentary. The most disappointing aspect of this debate for me has been the loud and hardened opposition to therapeutic cloning from some individuals and groups. When you talk to those individuals, it becomes clear that they are not interested in discussion. Their minds are already made up. When you then force the debate, what you often see is a rapid descent to inflammatory language—saying scientists want to make embryo farms, or worse, comparing me and other researchers to Osama Bin Laden or Dr. Mengele.

The issue is worthy of a far more respectable debate. Even our critics admit that these technologies at least have the potential to offer cures or new therapies for many thousands of people suffering from degenerative diseases. This debate should be about compassion, reason, and how we can best serve our fellow human beings. It should not be about getting votes or using this as a political football to win election or to look good on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

LE: The House of Representatives recently voted to ban your research. Where is the political trend going in the near future?

MW: There’s the recent, nearly unanimous recommendation from the American Medical Association to back therapeutic cloning, the recent stance of the New England Journal of Medicine encouraging submission of manuscripts relating to therapeutic cloning, and the formal recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences (the formal body that advises Congress on matters of science and technology) advocating moving forward on therapeutic cloning. I find it very difficult to imagine that the U.S. Senate, the most deliberative body in the world, could pass a law that would ban a medical technology that could impact the lives of 3,000 people a day who could potentially be treated with technology like this. But we’ll have to wait and see. I think, certainly, the momentum is on our side, increasing in force every day. There’s a steady stream now of scientific publications supporting the importance of the technology.

LE: Let’s move from politics to your philosophy of life. Please take us back to a moment when you had a sudden flash of insight while visiting the graves of your grandfather and father.

MW: One day at my hometown cemetery, seeing the graves of previous generations that led up to me, I realized that the sun would rise on a day when not only my father, who I loved dearly, but all the people who live with me and who I love desperately also will have their names etched on tomb-stones. That day will come, as certain as the sun rising tomorrow.

At that moment, I recognized something that I had noticed earlier in my life, but with a force I had never experienced before—that I hate death. Death reduces all meaning to zero. And it is the antithesis of our love for one another. I realized at that point that it would be not just the highest calling of mankind, but my own calling, to apply every resource I have, all of my skills in science, to a continual effort to try to combat aging and death, as difficult as that may be.

I’m convinced that, in this century, we will largely understand the molecular mechanism of the clock that resides within us, ticking away and leading to the degeneration and aging of tissues. I’m convinced that human creativity and ingenuity are going to inevitably turn those insights into novel technologies that, at least to some degree, can intervene in aging. Not simply to extend the human lifespan, but also to add quality in our remaining years.

LE: Let’s now turn to your discussion of August Weismann’s view that the very first stable cell was immortal and that aging arose as an adaptation by previously immortal cells.

MW: Reproductive cells, by definition, cannot have dead an-cestors because cells come from cells and life comes from life. It’s the continuum of cells that has connected all the generations of life on this planet for billions of years.

Life is immortal in the sense that the germ-line, which is not a human life but can be considered human life itself, is potentially immortal. Of course, these cells could die. Hit one with a hammer and it’s dead. But they’re not programmed to age. Aging is, as far as we know, a unique property of somatic cells. Our goal is to extract all the knowledge we can about how germ-line cells achieve immortality and find a way to translate that into making young cells for old people—in essence, to find a way to make old people young.