Over a bowl of high-fiber cereal, sliced peaches, and skim milk, Miller Quarles sits in the sunny breakfast nook of his Houston home, as he does every morning, contemplating his impending death. His condition is terminal, although the onset of many of its symptoms—diminished eyesight, achy joints, impaired hearing, memory loss, incontinence, decreased agility, fatigue—has not yet begun. His illness is more common than cancer or AIDS, has no known cure, and will strike almost everyone he knows. Sometimes Quarles calls it “a plague that is ravaging the world,” but more often he calls it simply the “disease of old age,” and at 83 he is inescapably becoming one of its victims. The dark tan he once had from years spent in oil fields has turned into liver spots, and the borrowed time he believes he now lives on is rapidly dwindling. “Chances are I’ll be dead in five years,” he says matter-of-factly, uncapping a bottle of vitamin C and popping a chalky tablet into his mouth. “Only one person out of twenty thousand lives to be a hundred. So my odds aren’t very good.”
Despite his fate, Quarles is anything but morbid. A slim, athletic man who looks younger than his years, he exudes vitality, frequently boasting of his three girlfriends, his green belt in karate, and his lucrative job as an oil consultant. But death, or more accurately the postponement of it, has become an obsession. Because he sees old age not as a peaceful, leisurely interlude in life but as a lonely, painful, and humiliating descent—“A slow torture so devastating that we want to die just to get it over with,” he says—Quarles wants researchers to study it as a disease, just as they study cancer and AIDS, and zealously seek its cure. To spur them on, in 1990 he offered $100,000 to any scientist who could find the cure for aging before the year 2000. He expected that other millionaires would also contribute to the bounty until it became an irresistible sum, but except for Bob Delmonteque—a perpetually bronze 78-year-old Malibu, California, bodybuilder, who matched Quarles’s contribution in 1994—no one else got out a checkbook.
Quarles, an accomplished scientist in his own right—he is a widely respected, Cal Tech—trained geophysicist with an uncanny knack for finding oil—has fervently believed for almost a decade that science, and in particular the body’s cells, must hold an alternative to aging and mortality. And although he was largely dismissed as a crackpot when he originally offered his $100,000 prize, there is new evidence that extending the human life span by decades and perhaps even centuries may be a viable option in the future. Scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, working in conjunction with a California biotech company called Geron, in which Quarles was an initial investor, have made an astonishing discovery: They believe that they have identified in human DNA strands the mechanisms of the biological clock of cellular aging. But figuring out how to manipulate our genetic programming to prolong life could take anywhere from a few years to a generation, and Quarles is growing increasingly anxious with every passing day. His time is running out.
Never before has medical science offered so many options for forestalling the physical ravages of aging, from face lifts, tummy tucks, and implants to chemical peels, liposuction, and collagen injections. Anti-wrinkle creams and anti-balding lotions such as Retin-A and Rogaine, respectively, as well as a host of anti-aging pills and potions like DHEA, melatonin, human growth hormone, and Deprenyl are also being eagerly used. But none of them can alter the fact that the human body to which they’re applied is growing imperceptibly older each day.
Quarles has never been interested in cosmetically repackaging his body. He wants to retool it from the inside out. Biology, he firmly believes, is not destiny. In 1989, after reading an article in Time that described gene mapping, a laborious process by which researchers can identify which genes govern which illnesses, Quarles began to ponder whether scientists could find the gene that controls aging, and find it quickly. The next year, at a dinner party, he met Mike West, then a 37-year-old cell biologist from the Southwestern Medical Center who was studying the genetic underpinnings of aging. Quarles helped fund West’s hunt for the aging gene and served as an “angel investor” for his new biotech company, Geron; by 1992, enough West Coast venture capitalists had joined in that West decided to move the company from Dallas to Silicon Valley. Geron—whose logo is an hourglass encircled by DNA strands—is now worth roughly $110 million and sports several celebrated geneticists, including James Watson (as in Watson-Crick, the team that discovered the structure of DNA), on its scientific advisory board.
One of Geron’s stars is Woodring Wright, a pioneer of aging research and a professor of cell biology and neuroscience at Southwestern. Wright and his collaborator, Jerry Shay, are studying the cell’s biological clock—or, more precisely, what makes it tick. They are focusing on the telomere, the DNA sequence found at the end of each chromosome (it has been likened to the plastic tip on the end of a shoelace), which may control when we grow old and die.
The guiding principles of telomere theory, as Wright’s area of research is now known, are relatively simple. Cell division—in which one cell splits into two identical cells—replenishes dead cells that have sloughed off, but healthy human cells can divide only a finite number of times; they are mortal. Our cells’ ability to maintain and repair tissue lessens as they age, hence the hardening of our arteries, the wrinkling of our skin, and so forth. In theory, then, to extend the life span of the human body, researchers must learn how to stop or slow the aging of human cells. And the mechanism that tells our cells to age, Wright and Shay have demonstrated, is most likely the telomere. A cell with a long telomere, such as a