The First Clone
Scientists have finally cloned a human embryo. The breakthrough promises cures for terrible diseases. Here's the inside story:
Michael West, by his own admission, is "an absolute obsessive-compulsive" who views life as a mission. A self-described political conservative, he was in his early years a creationist, and he trained as a paleontologist with the goal of proving the Bible's account of God's design. But as he studied the fossil record, instead of finding God's divine plan, he found an endless account of disease and suffering. Out of that bleak vision he developed a new spiritual fervor: "If God is about love and life," he says now, "then we should do everything we can to end suffering and death."
So in his early 20s, West knew his holy grail: to conquer aging and death--a goal so stunning in its scope that many colleagues over the years have discounted him as a quixotic dreamer. "When I talk about ending aging, I'm not talking about some vain fountain of youth," he explains. "I'm talking about ending the suffering of aging: macular degeneration, cancer, Alzheimer's, heart disease."
After getting his Ph.D. in biology, West enrolled in medical school but was too impatient with the establishment to finish. Instead, he reincorporated his late father's truck-leasing business as a biotech firm called Geron (Greek for "old man"), committed to ending the ravages of aging. Enchanted by findings that each body cell has an ever shortening fuse called a telomere that signals a cell to age and die, West poured all his energies into finding a way to keep extending the fuse to give a cell endless life. It took seven years, but his company did eventually identify telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes telomeres. (And he ended up marrying the Geron scientist who cloned the gene for telomerase.)
Telomerase alone proved not to be enough to reverse aging, and West became fascinated with work on newly discovered stem cells. West immediately recognized that stem cells had the potential to rejuvenate aging bodies, and he quickly began funding scientists who ended up isolating the first human stem cells.
But as Geron grew, its board became more and more uneasy with West's controversial interests, and West despaired at the company's lack of support for his vision. In early 1998, he left the company he had founded and lost access to the intellectual property he had created on telomerase and human stem cells.
It wasn't long, though, before West caught wind of Cibelli's cloning feats, and he immediately seized on the concept as one far superior to producing "generic" stem cells. (Generic stem cells, derived from human embryos, are the kind that President Bush agonized so publicly over last summer before deciding to fund limited research on the cells.) But, West wondered, why would you treat patients with cells from an embryo donated from an in vitro fertilization clinic--with another person's cells--when you could give patients their very own cells? In a flash, West was in talks with Advanced Cell Technology--at that time an agricultural genetics company--and within the year became CEO, then owner of the venture.