Our Fountains of Youth: An excerpt from The Longevity Seekers

April 25, 2013
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The Longevity Seekers: Science, Business, and the Fountain of Youth by Ted Anton

The tale of the fountain of youth is a mythic encounter that dates back to Herodotus, which has enraptured would-be seekers for two-thousand-years and counting. In The Longevity Seekers, science writer Ted Anton updates the search and takes readers inside a story of contemporary bioscience that began with worms and branched out to snare innovative minds from California to Crete, investments from big biotech, and endorsements from TV personalities like Oprah and Dr. Oz. Below follows an excerpt from the book’s preface, which invites its reader to “explore the relation of a unique science of its time and, in so doing, the relation of any science to any time.”

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The Laboratory of Molecular Biology sat at the end of Hills Road on the southern edge of Cambridge, England. In 1983 the weather had been so miserable that twenty-nine-year-old Cynthia Kenyon taped a yellow sun on her single window overlooking distant hedgerows and a lone traffic light. She was checking her experiments in her tiny three feet of bench space in a room in one of the leading institutions of molecular biology. The room was small and crammed with equipment, with cream-colored walls. Upstairs was a cafeteria strewn with newspapers and ashtrays. The laboratory smelled of coffee.

She worked with spectacular people mostly in their twenties who were committed to science driven by ideas. Their main idea was that if you had a biological question, you studied it in a living animal, not in single cells. Lanky and tall, with short blond hair and freckles, Cynthia Kenyon had changed her career to join this group. The oldest of three who grew up in New Jersey and Georgia, she hated limits and disliked authority. In high school, she played jokes on the band master even though she dreamed of a concert career playing French horn. She hung a banner, “Know the truth and it shall make you free,” in her bedroom, where she allowed a parakeet to fly free and taught it to pick playing cards from her hand. She wrote stories, played guitar, kept a huge aquarium, and sewed her own clothes. She yearned to do something great.

That morning the rain had finally stopped. The lab emptied as people headed out to enjoy the sunshine. An opera played on the radio. At her bench, Kenyon noticed one of the petri dishes of tiny worms. She pulled over a microscope to take a closer look. The tiny worms were called Caenorhabditis elegans, “elegans” for their elegant, sinuous, near-transparent bodies. C. elegans lives in the temperate soils and decaying fruits of the earth. It consists of almost every tissue that a human body contains, but is only the size of a comma in a printed sentence.

The worms in Kenyon’s dish barely moved. Their skin bunched in weedy, menacing clumps. Their backs looked bloated and thick. They looked old and near death. They looked, she thought suddenly, like people. They aged just like humans. Then she realized she too was getting old, and someday she would die.

The mystery the lab studied was the molecular plan of growth, repeated beautifully every tine, that controlled the way nerve and other cells organized in patterns to build an animal. It took tens of millions of steps to make an animal from a one-celled embryon, each choreographed by a mysterious gene program. The revolutionary discovery was that single genes, shared among species, controlled many of key steps of the growth program. But the revolution was over, and Kenyon had mostly missed it.

No one thought that a similar pattern might determine the rate of our decline. Aging was random decay, and no one wanted to study that. Yet aging was one of life’s most important processes, she thought, and all biological processes, they were learning, were controlled by genes. If everything was in some way controlled, then aging might be as well.

Some moments you feel or see something that sticks in the unconscious like a dream. Outside her window the traffic light changed. She looked at the plate of worms. They barely moved. She never forgot that moment. It was a beautiful day and her heart was pounding.

This is the story of the race to understand the genes of healthful human longevity. For years, researchers have extended the life of lab animals up to ten times their normal span. Working on tiny worms, flies, fungi, and mice, scientists discovered molecules that sense nutrient and energy levels and extend fitness into late life.

The question was whether the same may be true for humans. Scientists’ new insight was that the rate of aging may not be random and chaotic, but rather a controlled and perhaps manipulable process. By changing the activity of only a few genes, we may be able to live much longer, healthier lives. No science ever received quite so much public fascination because few have offered such immediate promise of potential social impact. We face an aging crisis. If current trends continue, the number of people older than 60 years will more than double by 2050. By that year, one in three people in the developed world will be older than sixty. The intensity of this “silver tsunami” is even greater in the developing world, where countries will have less time to adjust. Across the globe, the number of centenarians will increase eighteen-fold in the next fifty years. Even though we are living longer, we still suffer the tragedy of late-onset illness. By a large margin, most health care costs are incurred at the end of life. A host of policy makers today are arguing about what the aging world means and how to address it.

This book tells the story of a potential science revolution and of the new money changing the way scientific ideas emerge. It begins with geneticist Cynthia Kenyon, 59, who found one of the world’s first longevity genes and cofounded a company to find a drug to extend healthful human life, competing with several new companies, many funded by the barons of the information age.

Rather than spending billions of dollars to battle the various diseases of aging, these researchers argued, we might better spend our efforts on a new way of thinking, at the level of molecular tipping points int eh cell that make the beautiful circuits and feedback loops that can either maintain or damage our health. These tipping points come in small switches triggered by nutrients, energy levels, and other changes in the environment. These switches can almost miraculously calibrate the rate of aging in many species, from familiar lab models to humans.

This is the biography of an idea. The idea is that the quality of aging could be altered by tweaking single genes. It originated among a handful of outsiders, working on tiny animals outside the mainstreams of traditional aging study. There was no textbook or blueprint for pursuing that idea, but there was a culture of small groups often at odds with each other. The early researchers fought for money, and, if they got it from the super-rich, they worked without many of the ties of conventional funding. In the scramble for scientific credit and financial gain, the battle to survive required skills of control, cooperation, and competition for resources, much like the genes themselves.

Aging remains one of life’s great unsolved riddles. For all our biological knowledge, we still do not know exactly what aging is. Life can defy entropy, the tendency of systems to wear down over time. Healthful life span may last as long as it wants or needs to. Some organisms live centuries or longer. We now know something of the gene, cell, and hormone signals that help them do so.

This book explores the mystery of those intricate cell signals and the battles of scientific personalities to expose them. The discoveries offer deep insights, but equally as illuminating was the confluence of dreams, personal crises, intense work, altruism, and greed that made one of the most contentious science stories of our time. Few recent scientific discoveries have moved from such an outlier status to the pinnacle of business, while riling up more critics. Some ideas won, and some of the biggest lost out.

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For more on The Longevity Seekers, click here.

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