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Death. And How to Avoid It.

The brains behind La Jolla's biotech boom try to answer the big questions.

January 22, 2006|Steve Chapple | Steve Chapple last wrote for the magazine about Randy Hayes and the Rainforest Action Network.

Dr. Richard Houghten did not choose his parents wisely. His father died at 58, his mother at 51. One grandfather died at 57, another at 47. An uncle, three brothers and his sister all have Type 2 diabetes. He is 59.

The awareness of his own mortality drives Houghten, president and director of the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies. It drives the rest of us too, of course, but Houghten and the other biotech cowboys on La Jolla's "Science Mesa" are actually doing something about it.

"It's all going to happen, Steve!" says Houghten, welcoming me into his office at the institute, a soaring concrete-and-glass structure that reminds me of the corporation in the film "Gattaca." "But will I be around long enough to see it? No. Your kids? My kids? Guaranteed! You can already grow a human ear in the intestinal tissue of a mouse. Your heart in a beaker--that's going to happen. The question is whether it's your heart tissue or whether it can be stem cells. Stem cells are very important. There's been some cool work with baby teeth recently, so the whole question of abortion may be left by the wayside. There's pulp in there, in baby teeth, and you can get the cells and multiply 'em up. It's a future way beyond what we're already talking about, and probably way sooner. If someone tomorrow said they had cloned a human, would you be surprised? I'd be surprised if it hasn't already happened. If you're rich, think about it, you've got a spare $100 million, plenty of technology, a network, and you can fund it. Technically, cloning a human is not nearly so hard as Los Alamos"--says a man whose father helped refine and measure the effects of the first hydrogen bomb.

"You may not like the idea of organ culture--hydroponic cloning--but in a way, what's wrong with it? You take a few of your cells, your kids' when they are born, those baby teeth, that umbilical cord blood, and you can eventually replace a rotten kidney, a bad liver, harvest a heart, certain parts of your brain--the whole brain's a lot harder--if you have Alzheimer's or whatnot. In the end what's going to happen is, we are going to live as long as we want to, until we get bored. 'I'm bored,' " Houghten shrugs, pretending to be about 200 years older than he is, " 'I'm bored with it all. I want out.' " He laughs.

People on the Mesa laugh a lot. Maybe it's the sequestered beauty of the place, a swimmable surfer's sea lapping limestone cliffs, palm trees mixed with pines, cool mornings, sunny afternoons, perfect air, a collegial setting, very high and quite justified salaries, and no traffic. Or maybe it's the astounding beauty on the micro level--imagine using safe viruses as guided-missile vectors to bring new drugs to hidden tumors, or arresting diabetes with protein synthesized from the saliva of the Gila monster, or switching off the "bad genes" for Tay-Sachs, Huntington's chorea and cystic fibrosis.

Once a sleepy paradise, "Beverly Hills by the Bay," La Jolla and Torrey Pines Mesa are now at the center of the most concentrated cluster of biomed in the world: more than a dozen major research institutes, among them Salk, Burnham, Scripps and UC San Diego, and 300 companies such as Pfizer, Novartis, Amylin and the aptly named Isis Pharmaceuticals (Isis put the pieces of Osiris back together, long ago, in Egyptian times, when the brain was treated as the most discardable of organs), many within a few square miles of each other, some stretching in a weaving, blinking line, like the twisted strands of the double helix itself, up to Oceanside and down to Mission Bay. In all, 39,000 life-science professionals work in San Diego County, generating near-daily breakthroughs and headlines and bringing in as much money to the new San Diego as either of the old mainstays, defense and tourism.

I'm hoping these people know something--something big--that the rest of us don't. So I've come as a concerned layman to query Houghten on a subject of wide interest: death. Also, how to avoid it.

I hadn't seen him since our days in the Bay Area, where he got a PhD in organic chemistry at Berkeley and used to roar to work on a motorcycle, smoking the Bay Bridge at dawn, and where he skydived, free-dived and scuba-dived with great whites off the Sonoma Coast. "A phase," he says, "that lasted about four years. It was along the lines of 'Life is short, and I want to do everything.' I was 25, and it seems like only yesterday." Now he drives a minivan and holds a joint professorship at Zhejiang University, south of Shanghai, lecturing and sussing out China for manufacturing possibilities. But he says he hasn't changed. "You're the same at 15. When you're very young, you want respect, but now it's the thrill of doing something that nobody else has done that you know will be successful. It's better than sex."

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