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Michael West

result of just simple scientific ingenuity. I’m aware of numerous remarkable advances that have taken place in field, and we’re actually ahead, I would say, of where I thought we would be as of today. Of course we could be much further if the federal government were funding this research. As you know, the state of California voted for the allocation of three billion dollars to fund precisely this area of research–called Proposition 71–and it’s anticipated that the funding will eventually materialize. So, despite the fact that we have not had a lot of federal funding, which is the normal way medical research is undertaken, I’m happy to say we’ve made some rather remarkable progress.

David: What do you think are the primary causes of aging?

Dr. West: I’ve believed for some time that aging has multiple facets and components, but it is not as complex or difficult to understand as many people have proposed. In the early days, for many people diabetes looked to be a very complex disease. You have sugar in your urine,. You have problems in your eye, retinal disease. You get ulcers on your skin, heart disease, and you have all these complications associated with the disease. It looks very complicated and difficult to solve. Well, we now know, of course, that diabetes is caused by the simple loss of a single protein–insulin–and the regulation of that insulin. That is the sole cause, and all those other complicated manifestations of the disease are now largely explainable, likened back to that single cause.

Diseases like progeria and Werner’s Syndrome are what we frequently refer to as premature aging syndromes. Although not exactly like human aging, they are very similar in many ways. You see grey hair, wrinkled skin, cataracts, coronary disease, osteoporosis–and many of these manifestations of aging we know are caused by a single genetic mutation. So what I believe is the case is that much of what we call human aging is due to the damage of DNA. In particular, I’m an advocate of the idea that much of that damage is at that the telomeric region of the DNA. I think that in the future we will look back to these days, and we’ll see this as time when we came to understand that at least much of what we call human aging is due to damage to the DNA, that that’s a large percent of human aging.

I mentioned earlier that it’s somewhere between five and ninety-five percent of human aging, and that recent data suggests that telomeres are more up toward the higher end of that percent, closer to the ninety-five percent. There are studies now in rodents, where human telomeres are inserted into those rodents. The Werner mutation has been put into those rodents and now, for the first time, rodents tend to age like humans. They have age-related diseases like humans. That strongly suggests that we’re beginning to understand some of the fundamental biology of human aging. Scientists are quick to point out that I’m not saying a hundred percent of human aging, but much of what we call human aging.

David: What do you think are currently the best ways to slow down the aging process?

Dr. West: I don’t believe there are any. I think the only substantive way to intervene in human aging is going to be an intervention that’s based on molecular biology, a highly engineered scientific approach. I don’t believe there are any supplements, any exercise regiments, or any yoga classes you can go to that will slow the aging process.
David: What are your thoughts about the future of Western medicine in general, and what sort of new medical breakthroughs do you foresee coming over the horizon?

Dr. West: I believe in science and in the scientific method. I believe that, despite what I notice as being a widespread distrust of traditional scientific medicine, that scientific medicine is going to deliver beyond anyone’s expectations in the coming decade. I can’t express the amount of enthusiasm I have over new developments like embryonic stem cells, and the rapid increase in power in our ability work with DNA and see all the molecular biology. As I’m speaking to you here just now, I have in front of me a spreadsheet with forty thousand genes on the vertical axis and many of the cell lines that we’re working with on the horizontal axis. In a matter of seconds, I can tell you the expression level of any gene in any of these cell lines.

The analytical abilities that I now have allow me to do research at somewhere between a hundred and a thousandfold faster than I could ten years ago. This helps me to answer fundamental questions. I’m interested in the collagen gene, the gene that makes the protein from which a lot of skin tissue is composed. If I want to know what the collagen gene does as embryonic stem cells differentiate, I can have that answer in about five seconds now. That would have taken me weeks or months worth of work in the past. So the rapidity at which we answer fundamental scientific questions today is so much faster that we wonder how we were even able answer scientific questions like this in the past. Without the public knowing it, medical research has so dramatically changed from what it was ten years ago that it’s just hard to even compare.

David: What are you currently working on?

Dr. West: Regenerative medicine. I’m interested in the immortality of the germ line cells and learning lessons from them. I’m also interested in using nuclear transfer and other techniques to wind back the clock of aging and make young cells for old people. The medical toolbox that gerontologist of the future will bring to the patient, and to the problems of aging, will have several tools in it. There’s not going to be one tool that fixes it all. So, in some cases we’re going to need to put young cells into old people that can rebuild tissues and restore function lost as a result of age. There’s going to be some approaches where regenerative medicine, as it’s been dubbed, is applied, and they’ll probably be some approaches where traditional drugs are applied. So there will be several tools in the toolbox.

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