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Michael Fossel, Ph.D., M.D.

pathology effect that tissue. I look at what role, if any, cell senescence plays, or is likely to play, in that tissue, and finally what are appropriate points of intervention, either currently or in the near future, potentially using telomerase approaches. So, again, it’s basically is a textbook on how we can use cell senescence to effect human disease. It’s both very academic and very clinical. As I implied before, it’s not meant as an intellectual text so much as a practical and clinical look at disease, with a very strong emphasis on intervention. It’s not about a pure intellectual understanding, or just an ivory tower understanding, but rather, the focus is on intervention. 

I think that the major, single advance that’s been made in the last ten years really has been to show that we can reverse aging in reconstructed human tissues. In 1996 we had showed that we could prevent or reverse aging in individual cells, but that was in limited cases. Since that time not only has the work on cell types expanded, but we’ve shown that you can reverse aging in reconstituted human tissue. The next step we want to take would be to look at other tissues, and more importantly, a whole body approach. 

The tissue that’s been looked at already best has been human skin. Putting this in its simplest form, what has been shown is this. If we use young cells we can grow young skin. If we use old cells we can grow old skin. But if we take old cells and telomerase them, we can now grow young skin. So the argument that things just fall apart, that’s the way it is and they can’t be fixed, is not only wrong at the cellular level, but it’s wrong at the tissue level. That doesn’t prove that we can use it clinically, but it does prove that the blanket assertion that aging can’t be changed or reversed is simply wrong, at least with regard to a couple of tissues that we’ve looked at. So that’s very promising. 

David: Where do you think humanity should be focusing its scientific efforts right now?

Michael: Most people, and my temptation, would be to answer that from a very self-serving or personal approach. Obviously, as most researchers would say, you should be putting your money where I tell you, which is where I do my research. But the truth is you don’t know. The United States, and in fact most developed cultures, have a faith these days in the upstarts of small businesses. Not everyone does, but a lot of people do. They look at small businesses, and say, my God, look at the things that happen. For example, Microsoft started in a garage and look what happened. The truth is that most small businesses fail, depending on how you want to define failure, and an extraordinarily small number of them succeed spectacularly. But if look at it in retrospect you see the success stories not the failures. 

The same thing is really true scientifically. If we look back at things like quantum theory, or any number of other scientific approaches, whether they’re conceptual or practical, we see the success stories. But we miss the extraordinarily large number of foolish notions that, at the time, were looked at seriously. So the answer I think has to be that, not only can’t you just make an assertion and say, well, this is exactly where you should put your money, but, in fact, it’s very hard to do so rationally–because, frankly, it’s hard for human beings to be rational, logical, careful, and not let their own silliness, in a sense, or fashions intervene. 

It’s like phrenology. If we were right now back in Europe a hundred years ago we’d be considering putting money into phrenology perhaps. Well, most of us these days regard that as the height of foolishness. But the lesson we need to take from that is that the things that we think are very promising, may in fact be foolish. So it’s hard to answer that question. I think that we have to do the best we can, and I don’t like the procedures we use now to decide what we’re going to do with scientific funds, but I don’t have a better idea. It’s like capitalism, which is a very bad system, but it’s hard to find a better one. I think that’s true here too. We try to figure out where’s the best place to put scientific funding, and we probably don’t do a very good job, but for the life of me, I’m not sure how we can do a better job–except to continue to try to be rational, fair, balanced, and logical, knowing that we’re likely failing, but not having a better alternative.

David: What do you think happens to consciousness after death?

Michael: I have to tell you something odd. Given my druthers, I would prefer to talk about my sex life over my religious views on the world, and that comes perilously close. I find my views of religion, metaphysics, or life after death, as remarkably personal, in a sense, as to not make them public. But given a quick answer to that, I have to say I don’t think that death is final, and leave it at that.

David: I wonder how you’re going to feel about this next question then. It’s something that I’m asking everyone that I interview. What is your perspective on the concept of God?

Michael: You’ve already heard my perspective on our inability to be logical, reasonable, and unbiased–historically and scientifically–and I suspect that in spades is the problem we have in trying to conceptualize God. I don’t think we’re capable of it in any but almost laughable ways. So, much as I take religions very seriously–religions plural and my own personally–I suspect that they’re a far far distance from anything that reflects reality.

David: Do you see any sort of teleology in the evolutionary process, or do you see evolution as being a blind chance process?

Michael: That’s like trying to say to me, is God is infinitely wise? It brings up all sort of questions about what is God, and what is wise? And I think the same thing bears on questions of blind chance, teleology, evolution, and frankly again, my own inability to come to grasp with these things, or my own distrust of my ability to conceptualize these things in any accurate way. I tend to act as though evolution was a blind chance, while always wondering.

David: What are you currently working on?

Michael: My garden and some sculpture actually. I’ve decided that now that the textbook is out, as of a couple of weeks ago, I’m going to spend the summer working on my garden, and finishing an interesting sculpture I’m making. The sculpture is a large block of limestone that has a hemispherical, cut-in fountain, with a bowl on top. It drips water down on four sides. On one side is a series of grooves cut to represent the number pi. On the opposite side is the natural logarithm e. On the third side are the prime numbers. And the forth side has the Fibonacci series. I’m looking forward to completing it.

David: Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you would like to add?

Michael: Yeah, let me give you this, just because I suppose it interests people. Sometimes people ask me–and you sort of got at this, but you didn’t follow up–when will we reverse human aging? That’s it asked in its most bald-faced sense. It’s like asking, are we interfering with God’s will? People like to ask these things. When will we reverse human aging? The answer to me is kind of interesting. If you had asked me, when did we step on the moon, we can answer to the second. In fact, with a little research, we can answer to the millisecond, as close as you want, even allowing for the time delay between here and the moon. 

If you asked me, when did we cure polio, the answer gets curiously slippery, and yet definite. If I ask most people on the street they’ll say, well, it was 1954 wasn’t it? And they’re very right. That’s when the commercial vaccine was released, then taken back, and then released again, at least in the U.S. But if you asked anybody who has a little more knowledge, they’ll first point out immediately that we haven’t cured polio. It’s still around in this world, and we have high hopes. 

They might also go on to point out that in the theoretical, or the research sense, we cured polio sometime in the early 1950’s, before the release of the vaccine, because that’s when we (meaning Salk) first had a grasp of how things worked in polio. So, in a conceptual sense, we cured polio in 1951 or 52 perhaps. But leaving that aside, one, you notice it’s really hard to pin it down, and two, probably the best we can do is ask the man on the street, and that’s not a bad way of asking the question, as long as you understand limitations. 

The same thing pertains here. If you ask, when will reverse human aging, there’s no way we could answer anyway. Even looking back from the future, I think you wouldn’t be able to answer it anymore than you can about when we cured polio. But what you could do, is you could go forward a hundred or two hundred years and poll the person on the street, and say, when do you think we reversed human aging? I think that if you took the mean of those answers, in the same sense that polio was “cured” in 1954, that the answer will be a date sometime in the next decade. 

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