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FOREVER YOUNG : In a Quiet Lab in Costa Mesa, Milan Panic and a Team of Scientists Are Close to Answering Mankind's Enduring Question: Why Die?

June 21, 1987|MARK CHRISTENSEN | Mark Christensen's novel "Mortal Belladaywick" will be published this month by Doubleday.

MILAN PANIC SAYS: "Aging begins when the DNA code fails to send a message to repair itself. If we can assist the DNA in sending a message to repair itself, the cells will not age. If the cells do not age, you do not age. We have solved the problem." Compact, well-dressed, handsome and fiftyish, Panic (pronounced Paa-nish) is nothing if not dynamic; his Eastern European accent and enthusiastic delivery make him sound equal parts Lee Iacocca and Boris Badenov. Panic is president and founder of ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc., a company whose anti-viral agent ribavirin, sold under the trade name Virazole, has become the treatment of last resort for thousands of AIDS victims. He is also a man with an idea. "Why die? When I was a kid, I always asked the question. Must be a reason to die; something must be wrong. The time has come to challenge death, challenge the concept." Panic's enthusiasm for his own endeavors is well known. ICN was created with $200 in 1959, and during the go-go period of the late 1960s, the company was a darling of Wall Street, marketing radio-isotopes and a generic version of the Parkinson's disease antidote L-Dopa. And though it has had a roller-coaster financial history since, ICN has attracted major investors, including IBM and MCA. Two years ago, Eastman Kodak pledged $45 million to finance a six-year program in conjunction with ICN's Nucleic Acid Research Institute to try to develop a drug that will slow, stop or reverse the aging process. "We are at the brink of a biological revolution," Panic says. "The next five years may produce dramatic solutions to the problems of aging."

Panic is seated in the modestly tony main conference room at ICN headquarters in Costa Mesa. We are on the third floor of the central building, a long, glass-sided monolith nearly as big as an aircraft carrier, with laboratories occupying the lower levels. ICN also has research facilities in West Germany, the Netherlands, France, Mexico and Canada. The company is aggressive. Panic recently put it to Business Week this way: "This is the final frontier. Today's drugs fix kidneys and lungs, but all medical problems come from one cause--cells can't repair. The future will be to improve cell repair, and anti-viral drugs are the beginning of that era." Allows Science magazine editor Daniel E. Koshland Jr.: " 'DNA Valleys' of the future may approach in size and importance the Silicon Valleys of today."

The ICN-Kodak project employs 125 full-time scientists and researchers under the direction of Weldon Jolley, professor of surgery at Loma Linda University Medical Center. Jolley's group hopes to isolate an organic compound, among the 100,000 or so already developed by the two companies, that will stimulate immune mechanisms eroded by the aging process. Jolley believes that viruses like those that produce measles, mumps and flu begin to destroy the immune system when they invade the body. ICN has already enjoyed considerable success with Virazole, which has proved effective against diseases ranging from A- and B-strain influenza to shingles. (Tests of ribavirin on AIDS patients have so far been promising but inconclusive.) Jolley postulates that development of a stronger "cousin" to this drug could serve literally as an elixir of youth. "If we are successful," Jolley says, "the benefits to humanity would be spectacular." To say nothing of the benefits to Kodak's shareholders, and ICN's.

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