The CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, the Massachusetts firm that began human cloning experiments in 2001 to generate embryonic stem cells, gives a passionate account of his life.
West’s autobiographical narrative will do little to change the opinion of the religious right and assorted ethicists on the evils of embryo research, but it does effectively trace an amazing story. He was so transfixed by the “thirst for immortality” that he first sought answers in religion and creationism, devoting ten years to Bible study after high school. Only when confronted with the fossil record did West come to the “dreaded conclusion that the scientific establishment had it right.” Next came dad’s demise and a vision that he must defeat death. So he proceeds from leaps of faith to leaps of study: Ph.D. research on aging and an unfinished stint at medical school, unfinished because he saw the need to start a biotech company on aging. At Geron, West focused on finding the gene that could prevent the progressive loss of the ends of chromosomes that occurs as body cells divide, age, and die. Success came, and with it collaborations that led to the next leap to stem cell research—and a storm of controversy. West truly believes the key to immortality lies in injecting DNA from one of our “old” cells to replace the DNA in an egg cell and letting the cell divide to a pre-implantation embryo. The resulting stem cells can then be coaxed to develop into whatever tissue cells we need to restore health, re-set the clock of aging, or cure cancer, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. Maybe these death-defying developments could happen . . . but maybe not. Worse, might some tinker with the DNA to change the species or clone superbabies.
Lots to think about—not the least of which is why we don’t have a sensible government policy that would allow both private and public science to proceed with sensible caution and controls.