Who Is Doctor West, And Why Has He Got George Bush So Ticked Off?
(FORTUNE Small Business) – Michael West remembers the moment in his late 20s when he found a goal for himself: He would make death obsolete--or at least push back the frontiers of aging. At the time he was eating lunch in his car, parked across the street from the cemetery in his hometown of Niles, Mich. As he looked out over a sea of headstones, "I realized the sun will rise on a day when I and everybody I know will be gone," West recalls. "I realized that there was not a more significant quest than the problem of aging. It was a very dramatic moment for me."
Anyone else might have taken a deep sigh and then returned to the passing comfort of a corned beef on rye. But West had been "thinking about the meaning of life and the human condition," studying philosophy and religion, and even learning Hebrew and Greek so that he could read the Bible in those languages. All that furious head work propelled West, now age 48, toward a quest that culminated stunningly last November, when the company he runs made an announcement so controversial that even President Bush denounced its efforts. Not that he was swayed. "No one realizes the power that's now in our hands," says West, referring to that breakthrough.
West serves as president and CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, which was an obscure biotech company until last fall--when it announced the first known cloning of a human embryo. The Worcester, Mass., company was quick to stress that its in-tent was to clone embryos only as a source of stem cells for therapeutic, nonreproductive purposes. Such stem cells would be a source of new tissues and organs for the body. But these would be even better because they would be the body's own, and hence would not face rejection. Still, the company's brazen announcement angered many. President Bush, for one, blasted ACT, declaring that "the use of embryos to clone is wrong. We should not, as a society, grow life to destroy it."
"It's bizarre," says microbiologist David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate who is now president of the California Institute of Technology. "Why would they want to draw this kind of attention to themselves?" The House passed a broad ban on cloning last July; the Senate will probably take up the issue later this year. Currently Congress has limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a decision it will soon revisit. Why, wonders Baltimore, throw red meat to the hard right and risk an outright ban? "This aggravated the debate and has the potential to drive important scientific research offshore," he says.
Peers charged that ACT's work had trivialized science. "I have major problems with this ludicrous, outrageous, failed experiment," says Rudolf Jaenisch, a cloning pioneer at MIT's Whitehead Institute. "It has no information content at all. They effectively killed every embryo." Jaenisch notes that ACT began with 71 human eggs but only three divided at all, and those three soon died. The results amounted to "third-rate science," he says.
The furor might have all blown over, save for West's efforts at added spin. ACT published its findings in a new and obscure online journal, E-Biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine. Four members of the editorial board later resigned in protest. That article appeared in concert with a story written by West and his colleagues in Scientific American--minus any peer criticism--and a cover story in U.S. News & World Report, the product of a reporter's 18 months of access to the company.
If West had set out to gain notice with his cloning announcement, he had surely succeeded, with tiny, 45-employee ACT grabbing headlines around the world. The question was, At what price? Arthur Caplan, director of the Bioethics Center at the University of Pennsylvania, calls West a scientist who has these "religious and theological inspirations. But he also comes across as a fire-breathing, secular businessman." Adds Caplan: "He has succeeded in terrorizing the public and Congress. He's the best friend the Right to Life movement ever had." William Kristol and Eric Cohen, writing in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, have even gone so far as to lump West with the ultimate evildoer, Osama bin Laden. Both terrorism and cloning, they write, pose "grave threats to a dignified human future."
West, for his part, feels misunderstood by such critics, among many others. He takes the opportunity to--calmly--set the record straight. "Don't you see? They've got it exactly backwards," says West, who then slips into his best rhetorical imitation of Bob Dole. "Mike West is on this mission to fight aging and disease and death."
With a pleasant bearing and a mild, open face, West hardly looks like "the shock jock of biology," as one critic has tagged him. Like many a CEO on a road show, he wields a shiny laptop containing his company's pitch. But instead of graphs, his presentation includes slides of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of immortality. While West sees himself as a serious scientist, he can also readily imagine the possibilities within his reach: "Seeing-eye dogs that glow in the dark...Arnold Schwarzenegger's skin cells and Albert Einstein's chromosomes for sale on eBay...improvements and enhancements that, let's face it, your neighbor's kids are going to have."
West's neutral demeanor masks a bare-knuckled business sensibility, says Lee Silver, Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton. "Mike West wants to be the Bill Gates of cloning," says Silver. "He's tried to hire every top [cloning] scientist in the country, and he's following every possible [research] path."
West began his mission in earnest in 1989 when, having completed his Ph.D. in cell biology at Baylor, he attended medical school at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. There he introduced himself to Jerry Shay and Woody Wright, cell biologists studying the aging process. "He didn't want to sit around and learn academic lessons in medical school," recalls Shay. "He was more entrepreneurial." Shay and Wright's research focused on telomeres, tail-like structures in DNA that can be likened to the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces. As cells divide, telomeres progressively shorten. And yet certain cells, such as cancer cells, have the ability to "immortalize" using telomerase, a protein that prevents the telomeres from shortening. To Shay and Wright, the gene that produces telomerase was a prize that could potentially slow aging.
But the upstart West "was unimpressed," recalls Shay. "He was as negative as one could be." Shay recommended that West, on a trip back to Michigan, talk to another prominent researcher about the value of telomeres and telomerase. "He came back from that trip a true believer in telomeres," says Shay. (West, in fact, would later hire the scientist.) Shay, in describing West's sudden turnaround, says, "Once he had the story organized in his own mind he was ready to go around talking about this stuff."
While telomeres would provide West with a springboard into the science of aging, an eccentric Houston oilman, Miller Quarles, whom West met through his dentist, would be his angel. Quarles, 87, is the founder of the Curing Old Age Disease Society and, like West, a man of grand visions. Back in 1990, Quarles decided he was enjoying life too much to give up so easily. "I wanted to find the fountain of youth by the year 2000," he says. Quarles, who pops 50 supplement pills a day and plays tennis four times a week, has already been married twice, and is hopeful of finding another wife--one who might bear him more children. His first wife lasted 33 years, before, as he recalls, "she got super religious on me." His response? "I went out and played tennis," Quarles says.
In West, Quarles felt he had found "the best biologist in the world" and a scientist above reproach. "I don't see any objection to anything he's doing," says Quarles. "He could clone me, and I'd like him to try." Quarles adds that West's work in understanding aging--and potentially doubling the human life span--amounts to "the greatest discovery ever made by the human race." Quarles subsequently rounded up half a dozen of his aging cronies, and together they kicked in a total of $250,000 to back West, who started Geron Corp. in 1992 to chase the telomerase gene.
West's next stop was a venture capital conference on the West Coast, where he surprised even himself. He walked into the room a lone entrepreneur "with some angel money, no patents, and some ideas," as he describes it. But after he laid out his vision for the brightest investment minds in Silicon Valley, his life suddenly changed. "The people from Kleiner Perkins corralled me and formed a fence around me, and literally walked me out of the auditorium to another room," West recalls.
With $8 million in venture capital, West was now ready to "rock and roll," driving the quest for the telomerase gene full bore. As Geron researchers closed in on the gene, West recalls 24-hour work days and the filing of patents on a near daily basis. West, the unknown gunslinger, was going up against far bigger names out to isolate the gene. They included Robert Weinberg, an esteemed cancer researcher at MIT's Whitehead Institute. West recalls with relish how Geron finally published its first paper just six days before Weinberg in the summer of 1997, and how Geron, which West had taken public in 1996, saw its stock trade more shares than Microsoft's.
While West, with his feverish filing of patents, would build a strong intellectual-property position around the telomerase gene, he was already on the hunt for even bigger quarry. "I started the effort to get the embryonic stem cell back in 1995," he says. He aggressively courted leading researchers in the field. John Gearhart of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine recalled being startled when West simply showed up at his door unannounced. More recently Gearhart, who declined comment for this article, resigned from the editorial board of E-Biomed in protest of the publication of ACT's November experiment. Roger Pedersen, a former Geron researcher, has since moved to England, citing the restrictive research climate in the U.S. James Thomson, another Geron researcher, also declined to comment, other than to remark through a University of Wisconsin spokesman that ACT is "a publicity-driven company."
West left Geron in 1998 because he wanted to pursue cloning to produce embryonic stem cells--a potentially more powerful development than the telomerase gene. But he needed a platform. He found it later that year in ACT, a division of Avian Farms, an agricultural biotechnology company. West jumped on board after learning that ACT researchers had done some cloning work on human embryos but had not published the results. West, by contrast, "would be as transparent as possible every step of the way"--which is what guided him to publish his results when he did.
For a proponent of transparency, West can seem maddeningly oblique. "You want to see the cells that will cure Parkinson's?" he asks, flipping to a new slide on his laptop. (We end up looking at monkey cells, and such a therapy--not a "cure"--might be ten years away.)
Late last year West told Congress that he hoped that within six months ACT might be able to actually extract stem cells from cloned embryos. Rivals scoffed, saying it could take decades. Asked about this discrepancy, West replies, "What I really said was, 'I'd be disappointed if we couldn't do this within six months.'"
That kind of linguistic legerdemain leads some to question West's motives. Baltimore, the Nobel laureate, sees ACT's cloning experiment as motivated by "economic and political reasons." Shay too says West "is always trying to hype his position." While West denies that he would ever publish just to raise money, he allows that ACT will need "hundreds of millions of dollars" to break even. He may need to put some of that money aside to pay legal fees. Among the possible litigation: His former company, Geron, claims that ACT has appropriated some of its cloning technology. ACT denies that it has done so.
Lee Silver, the Princeton professor, says that people dislike West for the same reason they hate Bill Gates: "He's aggressive, and he's not afraid to walk over people."
Unlike most scientists, Silver says, West fully appreciates the inherent power of embryonic stem cells to transform medicine at all levels--and he has simply moved boldly to tap that potential. "There's no question we are all going to need this technology as we age," says Silver. "And if you're going to need a new liver you know who you're going to. It will be Mike West." For his part, West clearly hopes so; President Bush's criticism notwithstanding, he says he gets letters daily from people volunteering to be part of his research. "This is the blueprint of life," he says, the wonder rising in his voice, "and we can now change it any way we want."