- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

THE IMMORTAL CELL: ONE SCIENTIST’S QUEST TO SOLVE THE MYSTERY OF HUMAN AGING

By Michael D. West

Doubleday, $37.95, 244 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY CHARLES ROUSSEAUX

The ethical issues that today’s biotechnologists face didn’t stem from Michael West. However, he’s become a prominent face in the debate, thanks to his work on embryonic stem cells and regenerative medicine at Geron and Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), which has brought cloning-related conundrums to the fore. As such, Mr. West has an important perspective to present. Unfortunately, the author is so abrasive that even those who agree with aspects of the message will wind up disliking the messenger.

“The Immortal Cell,” described on its jacket as “part memoir, part adventure story,” is akin to one of Mr. West’s stem cells, having the potential to be many things, but never being carried far enough to become much of anything. It is a mishmash of styles, at times autobiographical, at times reading like a basic biology textbook and at other times a historical exposition. It is at all times an exculpation, but never an apologia. Mr. West is convinced he has nothing to be pardoned for in his relentless pursuit of prolonging human life.

Mr. West came into his calling after his search for the secret to immortality in strict Christianity was capped with disillusionment. Many who grew up with such fundamentalist strictures and later became involved with science (this reviewer is one), must find some way to balance the two worldviews. In Mr. West’s case, it was throwing out his theology and replacing it with the compassionate goal of giving life — at almost any cost. His mission, he writes, “was to extract … the secret of the immortal renewal to life, to hold it in my hand and to give it to my fellow human being.”

However, Mr. West’s calling of compassion at any price makes him myopic to the ethical dilemmas endemic in his efforts. After all, since Mr. West’s results are sanctified by compassion, all experimental processes are permitted.

As a consequence, a slightly skewed sense of values pervades the entire volume. The curtain rises dramatically, at the Advanced Cell Technology lab during the first successful attempt to clone human embryos. The emotions of the experimenters are captured well, but although the experiments occurred on Oct. 9, 2001, Mr. West does not even acknowledge the terrorist attacks that occurred less than a month before, until much later in the book. At another point, he recounts being surprised by the chilly reaction he receives when asking a researcher about making human embryonic stem cells. He sets up an ethics advisory board, not so much because he believes his work raises serious ethical questions, but because he fears it will be delayed.

The biographical portions are beset with the same problems of priority. Mr. West spends a great deal of time describing his first two years as a PhD student, during which he discovered that his principal investigator had made experimental errors serious enough to result in the retraction of a paper. Forced to restart his doctorate at a different school, he passes over the four years spent earning the degree in half a paragraph. He repeats the mistake later in the book by covering his departure from Geron, a company he founded and spent nearly a decade at, in two pages.

At one point, we are introduced to a lady named “Karen,” who only a few paragraphs later is identified as Mr. West’s fiance. Mr. West describes his appearances on “Meet the Press” and CNN to talk about his use of cloned embryos to produce stem cells before he mentions the two-month old triplets he left at home that day. The triplets are not mentioned again, but the stem cells are.

Mr. West even makes an inadvertent argument about the perils of cloning by using an almost identical diagram six different times, three times in sequence. Those, like the rest of the figures in the book are of marginal utility — most seem to be Powerpoint slides plucked from Mr. West’s corporate presentations.

Even worse are the dreadfully obvious observations that Mr. West feels obliged to inflict on his readers. One chapter opens, “Medical research is charged with tension.” When discussing President Bush’s decision to limit the stem cell lines available for federally-funded research, Mr. West writes, “There is often a problem when decisions are made based on anything other than solid facts and rationality.” On the idea of developing potentially immortal cells he writes, “Immortality means forever, and forever, by definition, can never be achieved.”

Finally, there are the test-tube emotions that are less lifelike than anything in Mr. West’s lab, and the names that are dropped with a heavy-handedness which would make David Banner wince. While by 1998, “I had become a regular phone call on the Rolodexes of print and broadcast journalists,” a few years later he claims to be a “relatively obscure” scientist who is pleasantly surprised to be greeted “warmly” by Tim Russert. Mr. West “humbly” answers him. He seems to be greeted “warmly” by practically every person he meets throughout the book, which must be true, since he sees fit to tell us that he is so compassionate that he once even changed a plane flight so he could bring his mother roses for her birthday.

Mr. West has a few good moments. His book is at its best when it is conveying the excitement of the biotech gold rush of the late 1990s. Mr. West displays a deft hand in describing the disappointments and delights of discovery. He even manages to make a good case for therapeutic cloning. It’s difficult to argue with his contention that therapeutic cloning has great potential to heal life and even prolong it. His worry that overly broad bans on cloning could slow, or even prevent the arrival of life-saving techniques is reasonable.

However, going forward with embryonic stem cell research also has many potential abuses. Mr. West runs roughshod towards potential cures where many prefer a more measured pace, considering the ethical implications as they develop. That uncertainty is seen in the state of the debate on Capitol Hill, where neither side has been able to summon sufficient votes to either affirm or prohibit therapeutic cloning.

Ultimately, Mr. West’s book seems far more likely to confirm the worst fears of his critics than allay them. Mr. West has laudable motives, but he’s a lousy messenger. His self-absorbed screed does little to serve his controversial causes.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.


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