Never Say Die
When Houston octogenarian Miller Quarles offered $100,000 to anyone who could find a cure for aging, he was called a crackpot. Not anymore.
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 baby’s cell, is like a car with a full tank of gas; a cell with a short telomere, such as an elderly person’s cell, is running on empty. Each time a cell divides, the telomere shortens. By the time a cell stops dividing altogether, having metaphorically run out of gas, its telomere is nothing more than a nub. To extend a cell’s life span, then, Wright must figure out how to keep its telomere long. And if he can do that, he may be able to prolong the life of not only human cells but also the entire organism, the human body.
Wright, who is 48, first began thinking about the conundrum of aging at the unusually young age of 19, when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. “Within the scientific community, aging research had been regarded with much skepticism,” he says. “Finally, over the past fifteen years, one could think of approaching the question of aging not as a quack but in terms of serious science. Now it is within the realm of possibility that within twenty years, we might be able to extend our own life spans.”
Wright, who went on to earn an M.D. and a Ph.D. at Stanford and worked as a researcher at the Pasteur Institute in Paris before arriving at Southwestern in 1978, is by turns sober when discussing his methodology and almost giddy with excitement when talking about the future applications of telomere theory. He has been known, on occasion, to serenade his graduate classes with a ditty he’s written to the tune of “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”—a love song, of sorts, to the telomere: “. . . If you keep it strong, and keep it long / You’ll feel real good inside / While you continue to divide!”
Ironically, the answer to the problem that now absorbs Wright—how to keep our cells’ telomeres long—may lie in the body’s archenemy: cancer. Cancer cells are immortal—they simply cannot stop dividing and proliferating. And while that is what makes them so savage, it is also what makes them so intriguing to life-extension researchers. The scientists’ challenge is how to manipulate our telomeres to make our cancer cells mortal and our healthy cells immortal, or at least longer-lasting. Wright and Shay have shown that an enzyme called telomerase may be the key, since lab studies have demonstrated that it is probably the ingredient that keeps the telomeres of cancer cells long. If further tests bear out their findings, Wright and Shay’s research will have a significant impact on science’s ability to both cure cancer and extend the human life span.
Although it’s unlikely that life-extension researchers will discover how to stall the aging process before Quarles’s turn-of-the-millennium deadline, he expectantly waits, trying to preserve himself as best he can in the meantime. He plays tennis, eats a low-fat diet, doesn’t drink or smoke, consumes a staggering array of vitamins, and leads “a very active sexual life,” he says with a self-satisfied grin. When he is not at his office in downtown Houston poring over oil company reports or running COADS, the Curing Old Age Disease Society, which he founded in 1990, he works out of his modest home near the Galleria, surrounded by souvenirs of his decades spent looking for oil. Every spare inch of his living room is covered with rocks—crystal-lined geodes, rippled agates, translucent quartz—that Quarles has cut with a diamond saw and carefully polished in his garage. On his breakfast table rests one of his most prized possessions, a piece of petrified amber that contains a tiny bee. Lifeless but lifelike, its papery wings are perfectly preserved, hovering for all eternity.
“Some people accuse me of wanting to play God,” he says. “All I know is that this is a wonderful place to be. I’ve seen an explosion of scientific advances in my lifetime, from antibiotics to television to landing on Mars, and I know that things will progress even faster in the next hundred years. It’s so exciting, and I want to be here to see it. What’s in heaven that’s not here?”
The earth has always yielded valuable information to Quarles the geophysicist (his ability to pinpoint where to drill has earned him a reputation among Houston oilmen for having the Midas touch), so perhaps it is understandable that he would expect our cells to provide answers for him as well. Although he is vague when asked about a host of moral and logistical problems that life extension would create, he argues that an older society would be a wiser society, greatly benefiting from elders’ experience. He can be persuasive when arguing that longer lives mean better lives—so persuasive, in fact, that most of the people in his life (his two ex-wives, his three girlfriends, his personal trainer, his physician, and his three daughters) belong to COADS. As the president of the four-hundred-member organization, Quarles speaks on the Rotary Club circuit, arguing that life-extension research is shockingly underfunded because it has been “unfairly” overshadowed by AIDS and cancer.
Quarles may betray a bit of self-interest in such pronouncements, but he is determined to get his message across no matter what the price. When the British producers of a BBC documentary on aging outfitted him in a white Stetson, a Western shirt, a turquoise-studded bolo tie, and blue jeans and filmed him prowling oil fields in a chauffeur-driven white stretch limousine so he would look more like a “real” Texas oilman, Quarles complied. (In reality the unostentatious millionaire would take a Luby’s LuAnn Platter over a porterhouse steak any day.) He has also matched his rhetoric with his dollars, currently holding 45,000 shares in Geron and offering an annual $10,000 prize to individuals who accelerate the development of an aging “cure” or heighten public awareness of the possibilities for life extension. And, in a last-ditch effort to tap the fountain of youth, he has tried to raise $1 billion—the amount he thinks it will take to make life extension a reality in his lifetime—by firing off fundraising letters to some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential people: Ross Perot, Bill Gates, Rush Limbaugh, Ted Turner, the sultan of Brunei, and all members of Congress over 55. He has yet to hear back an encouraging word.
So he patiently waits, polishing his rocks, juggling the affections of his girlfriends, and playing tennis, even on blazingly hot afternoons like this one, with one of them, Sandy, a vivacious, fit blonde in her early fifties. “Look at him!” Sandy says indignantly as she scurries after a tennis ball. “The man truly does not sweat, even in this heat.” Quarles watches her with a look of amusement. “It’s almost eerie,” she says. “I need to start taking those vitamins of his.”
During an hour of vicious serves and sneaky backhands, Quarles beats her effortlessly. Before heading back to the locker rooms, they stop—at Sandy’s insistence—for a glass of water. Then, as often happens with Quarles, the conversation turns to the possibilities that science may offer in the future.
“Just think, we could clone each other and play doubles,” he says wryly, zipping up the plastic cover of his tennis racket.
“And have two of you in this world?” Sandy says, bursting into laughter. “God help us all.”