Forever Young

Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion By Brian Alexander, Basic Books, 289 pages, $25.95

Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension By Stephen S. Hall, Houghton Mifflin, 439 pages, $25.00

To see what happens when market forces meet wishful thinking, just have a look at the history of anti-aging medicine. In the 1920s, an American doctor named John Romulus Brinkley began transplanting goat testicles into human recipients, at a fee of $750 per patient, on the theory that male aging was caused by declining hormone production. In 1972, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation began advertising its services to customers who wished to have their heads suspended in liquid nitrogen when they died, in the hope that they would someday be resurrected. For centuries, Chinese doctors taught that aging could be postponed by the regular consumption of human urine -- a remedy that, if not all that effective, at least had the virtue of being cheap. Until very recently, many mainstream biologists regarded the study of aging as a dismal backwater inhabited by fringe scientists and snake-oil salesmen.

Today, though, research on aging is widely seen as a showpiece of modern scientific research. Molecular biologists are the stars of this show, and they are backed by a cast of thousands: venture capitalists, biotech entrepreneurs, adoring science journalists and moonstruck bioethics advisers -- not to mention an enthusiastic chorus line of transhumanists, Extropians, cryonicists, Raelians and freelance cloners. Two fine new books chronicle the biotech boom, in all its market-fueled, ideologically driven fervor. Both Brian Alexander and Stephen S. Hall pay tribute to the genuine accomplishments of molecular biology while acknowledging how those accomplishments have been driven by the desperate enthusiasm of baby boomers whose reaction to the prospect of death and decline is, as Hall puts it, to launch a "class-action suit against the laws of nature."

Many of today's longevity enthusiasts will be familiar to fans of Ed Regis' 1990 cult book, Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, whose characters moved happily back and forth across the thin line between science and madness. But the Mambo Chicken story ended in the late 1980s. Alexander's Rapture picks up where Mambo Chicken left off, and it proves a worthy successor. Alexander has the same gonzo style, the same wicked humor and, most of all, that Mambo Chicken sensibility -- a combination of ironic detachment and sheer bafflement at the hubris of these over-the-edge scientists. We get a glimpse of this sensibility in Alexander's first paragraph, which describes a well-known computer-science professor who also happens to be a cryonicist: "Ralph Merkle admitted that dunking your dead body into a tank filled with liquid nitrogen like a Krispy Kreme into a cup of Kona would have side effects. ... You could emerge from the deep freeze looking like more like a long-frozen rib eye than a sleek cryonaut resurrected from a time warp stasis."

Yet it is a challenge to tell the full biotech story in the Mambo Chicken style. Regis had scientists building rockets in their garages, spinning chickens around in accelerators and trying to download the contents of human brains onto computer disks. Alexander has a rather less spectacular figure: William Haseltine, the Harvard biologist and CEO of Human Genome Sciences. Haseltine is sometimes described as a biotech bad boy, but he is too serious to play the comic role he has been assigned. So Alexander must fill out his book with the ideologues, motivational speakers and corporate opportunists who lurk around the fringes of life extension. Thus we meet figures like Raelian founder Claude Vorilhon, an amateur race-car driver who claims to have been told by space aliens that the risen Jesus was a clone, and John Sperling, the billionaire founder of the University of Phoenix and Genetic Savings and Clone, who donated generous sums to biologists at Texas A&M University on the condition that they clone his dog, Missy.

Hall's Merchants of Immortality strikes a more measured tone. Hall is at least as concerned with merchants as he is with immortality; the key figures here are the biologists who have moved from pure academic research into the heady, market-driven world of corporate biotechnology. One such figure is Leonard Hayflick, the iconoclastic biologist for whom the famous "Hayflick limit" is named. In the 1960s, Hayflick bucked scientific orthodoxy by showing that cells in a petri dish can replicate themselves only about 50 times. After that, the cells began to degenerate. Unable to replicate and repair themselves, the cells die. But where there are limits, there are also limits to overcome. Could overcoming the Hayflick limit be the key to overcoming aging, or even death? That is one of the questions posed by the biotech entrepreneurs who have poured billions of dollars into research on telomerase, embryonic stem cells and longevity genes.

What is most striking about Merchants of Immortality is just how gripping the story is. Hall spins a great old-fashioned yarn, filled with compelling characters and unexpected plot twists. He could hardly have picked a more dazzling protagonist than Michael West, the ex-creationist turned biologist and entrepreneur who founded Geron and later became CEO of Advanced Cell Technology. West, whose story is at the heart of the book, comes off as a strangely sympathetic figure -- driven, charismatic, no great shakes as a scientist but a genius at seeing the commercial possibilities of emerging technologies.

Yet time and again there is a kind of sadness in Hall's voice as he explains how corporate interests have perverted the culture of science. The market has taken driven, highly competitive scientists in pursuit of knowledge and transformed them into driven, highly competitive scientists in pursuit of money. This transformation has not always been happy, or even entirely voluntary. Many university researchers working with materials derived from human embryos (such as embryonic stem cells) have been driven into the arms of biotech entrepreneurs by the lunacy of U.S. regulatory policy, which sidesteps controversial research merely by stipulating that no federal money will support it. This approach neither stops nor effectively regulates research on embryos but rather drives it into a free-for-all private sector, where it is funded by entrepreneurs and regulated by their handpicked bioethics advisers.

Central to this story is what Hall calls the "Geron problem." Geron, the West Coast biotech company founded by West in 1992, quickly established a reputation not just for playing corporate hardball but for its willingness to zip a fastball at the head of anybody stepping to the plate. Geron took an unusually aggressive approach to its intellectual-property agreements. It insisted on commercial rights to any discoveries made with its material. It contracted the very best university researchers to work for it but constructed the projects so that the same researchers would be excluded from work leading to commercial applications. In one case, Geron tried to block a graduate student from including the sequence of telomerase in her dissertation on the grounds that it would interfere with its patent application. When press reports in 1999 suggested that Geron was funding attempts to clone a human embryo, the company's CEO, Thomas Okarma, said the reports were false -- "Period. Full stop." Reporters for The Wall Street Journal later showed that Geron had been funding such attempts at the University of California, San Francisco -- this from the company that pioneered the concept of the "Ethics Advisory Board."

Anyone worried about letting the market drive the ethics of human cloning, genetic enhancement or research on human embryos will find no comfort in these books. Hall offers little evidence that the teams of bioethicists contracted by Geron and Advanced Cell Technology played any meaningful role in shaping company policy. In one case, Hall calls the ethical review a "midwife to fundraising." As usual, West seems savvier on this point than the bioethicists he has hired. When questioned by Hall about those he had recruited for Advanced Cell Technology, West answered, "In the field of ethics, there are no ground rules, so it's just one ethicist's opinion versus another ethicist's opinion. ... You're not getting whether something is right or wrong, because it all depends on who you pick."