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Ageless Quest for Fountain of Youth Is Alive and Well

Michael Rose Boldly Says His Research Could Lead to People Living 250 Years and Beyond

April 09, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a world where Peggy Fleming could skate against Tara Lipinski, where the Wright brothers could blast off in the space shuttle, and where George Washington could teach Bill Clinton the dangers of foreign entanglements.

And more to the point, it's a world where you could live to be 250 years old. Maybe even 300.

This isn't the world of make-believe. It's the brave new world of human longevity that evolutionary biologist Michael Rose says is entirely possible.

"It's a matter of time and money," said Rose, a professor at UC Irvine. "When it happens, it will change the way you, your children and your grandchildren live. And it's all sitting here, literally on my [lab] bench."

Traditionally, such fountain-of-youth claims have been the province of carnival hucksters, medical charlatans and incense-burning mystics. And perhaps because of this longtime association with the snake-oil peddlers of yesteryear, one expects more of a grand production upon hearing the news--something like an announcement from the Wizard of Oz.

But Rose, who certainly possesses his own flair for the dramatic, delivers his observation matter-of-factly as he goes about feeding his laboratory fruit flies a revolting cocktail of yeast, molasses, sugar and bananas.

Certainly to the public, and to many gerontologists, the 42-year-old professor's predictions about aging sound as likely as walking on water. While more people are living longer these days, the extreme range of human life has had an iron ceiling of about 120 years for hundreds, and probably thousands, of years.

"Michael is certainly reasonably well thought of. He's done a lot of very interesting work," said David Finkelstein, head of the pathobiology program at the National Institute of Aging. "But to many of us, some of his ideas sound a little crazy."

Among other well-respected scientists, however, Rose is no mad scientist. Rather, he's a bold and pioneering researcher who's arguably done more than anyone in the past two decades to push the idea of age postponement from science-fiction toward scientific fact.

"He's clearly shown you can modify the aging process," said Caleb Finch, a neurobiologist at USC who specializes in aging. "He's a brilliant theoretician and thinker with extraordinary gifts."

*

Twenty years ago, as a graduate student in genetics at the University of Sussex in England, Rose's considerable intellectual gifts told him that defying mortality was insane. His gifts, speaking in their usual candor, also informed him that his advisor, who wanted to test a new theory of aging that could unlock the mysteries of aging, must be on opium.

But his advisor's claims inspired Rose to develop his own experiments, which are now famous within evolutionary biology circles. Rose began with 200 fertilized female fruit flies and a drive to challenge the notion of a fixed maximum age. The idea was to breed fruit flies that outlived their cousins in hopes of increasing longevity.

Generation after generation was bred in this manner. Gradually, the specially bred flies began to surpass their normal life span of about 60 days.

The implications were as exciting as they were provocative: Age may not have a ceiling after all. That is, if one life form can push past its maximum genetic age barrier, why not another--namely, humans?

For Rose, who was known to spend 21 hours straight in a lab, the breakthrough was intoxicating. He was permanently hooked.

"Science is my lifelong obsession," said Rose, the son of a Canadian army officer. "As scientists, we worry and we replicate. We worry some more, and we replicate some more. It can be a merciless existence."

Today, Rose's Steinhaus Hall lab is home to more than 50 students and anywhere from half a million to a million fruit flies, some 500 generations removed from their University of Sussex forebears. Today's fruit flies are different from their ancestors in many ways, but the most important is they live at least twice as long.

Of course, selective breeding for "dinky organisms"--as Rose calls his fruit flies--is relatively simple, but it's obviously not an option for humans. So, what's the value of this research for humans?

By calling into question the notion of an unalterable life span, the fruit fly research opened the door to the real possibility of extending human life. When combined with scientific advances in genetic and molecular research, scientists can now better examine the genetic and cell makeup of normal fruit flies and their longer-lived cousins.

More answers may come from similar experiments already underway on mice, which are much closer to humans in terms of genes, cell types, organs and diseases. Modeled after Rose's fruit fly research, initial results show that mice are living longer, too, but it's still too early for researchers to draw any firm conclusions.

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