Merchants of Immortality

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Stephen S. Hall begins Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension with personal reflection on the implications of life extension for himself and his family; however, his scientific narrative begins with an account of the maverick cell biologist Leonard Hayflick who pioneered the concept of cell senescence and successfully fought the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at that time in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, over the issue of intellectual property in biology. Hayflick later claimed that his legal battle paved the way for biotechnology as a field.

Hall next focuses on Michael West, whom he describes as reinventing the myth of the fountain of youth by ushering in a brave new world of genetic engineering. West, an early entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in cell biology from Baylor University, began his career as a creationist, but was converted to the theories of Charles Darwin and became obsessed by mortality. West founded one of the first of the venture capital biotechnology companies, somewhat tamely named Geron. The field would later boast companies with names like Elixir Pharmaceuticals, Osiris Therapeutics, as well as the more scientific labels, StemCells and Advanced Cell Technology. West experimented with using the human telomerase gene to attack the aging process, and this experimentation was advertised as having a potential for reversing the aging process.

The ethics of using cloning for biomedical research became a media issue, and as Hall states, cloning was initially the major issue of George W. Bush’s presidency. Hall does not tie together the fascinating threads of scientific research, entrepreneurial projects, and government control; instead, he concludes his narrative with a meditation on immortality and the problems of schemes to extend life.