Bill Andrews has spent two decades unlocking the molecular mechanisms of aging. His mission: to extend the human life span to 150 years--or die trying
Bill Andrews’s feet are so large, he tells me, that back when he was 20 he was able to break the Southern California barefoot-waterskiing distance record the first time he put skin to water. Then he got ambitious and went for the world speed record. When the towrope broke at 80 mph, he says, “they pulled me out of the water on a stretcher.”
The soles of the size-15 New Balances that today shelter those impressive feet strike a steady clap-clap on the macadam as Andrews and I lope down a path along the Truckee River that takes us away from the clutter of cut-rate casino hotels, strip malls and highway exit ramps that is downtown Reno, Nevada. Andrews, 59, is a lean 6-foot-3 and wears a close-cropped salt-and-pepper Vandyke and, for today’s outing, a silver running jacket, nicely completing a package that suggests a Right Stuff–era astronaut. He is in fact one of the better ultramarathoners in America. I am an out-of-shape former occasional runner, so it gives me pause to listen as Andrews describes his racing exploits. “I can run 100 miles, finish, turn around, and meet friends of mine on the course who are still coming in,” he says. “I’ve been in many races where I’m stepping over bodies of people who have collapsed, and I’m feeling great.”
"I want to cure my aging, my friends' and family's aging, my investors' aging, and I want to make a ton of money," Andrews says.
His return to running after a middle-aged break was, he says, inspired by a revelation he had at a time when he and a small team of scientists at his biotech start-up, Sierra Sciences, had been working 14 to 18 hours a day in the lab for five years, rather obsessively pursuing a particular breakthrough. Finally, his doctor told him he was headed for an early grave. “I thought, god, I don’t want to cure aging and then drop dead,” Andrews says.
That would indeed be ironic. Because Andrews does intend to cure aging. This stated ambition induces in some listeners the suspicion that Andrews might suffer from delusions of grandeur, but he has a scientific pedigree that insists he be taken seriously. Unlike his friend Aubrey de Grey, the University of Cambridge longevity theorist who relentlessly generates media attention with speculations that straddle the border between science and science fiction, Andrews is an actual research scientist, a top-drawer molecular biologist.
In the 1990s, as the director of molecular biology at the Bay Area biotech firm Geron, Andrews helped lead a team of researchers that, in alliance with a lab at the University of Colorado, just barely beat out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a furious, near-decade-long race to identify the human telomerase gene. That this basic science took on the trappings of a frenzied Great Race is a testament to the biological preciousness of telomerase, an enzyme that maintains the ends of our cells’ chromosomes, called telomeres. Telomeres get shorter each time a cell divides, and when they get too short the cell can no longer make fresh copies of itself. If we live long enough, the tissues and organ systems that depend on continued cell replication begin to falter: The skin sags, the internal organs grow slack, the immune-system response weakens such that the next chest cold could be our last. But what if we could induce our bodies to express more telomerase? We’ll see, because that is what Andrews intends to do.
Andrews had scheduled this afternoon’s run as an 18-miler, but he graciously downscaled those ambitions on my behalf long before we set out from the parking lot of the Grand Sierra Resort Hotel. Four miles in, he’s hardly winded—and I’m out of gas. As we make our way back to his car, he consults his training watch and informs me that our pace was an almost respectable 8:40, excepting the latter stretches when I walked, pushing our average up to 10 minutes a mile.
The embrace of fitness has for Andrews a telomeric logic. Make poor lifestyle choices, and you’re likely to die of heart disease or cancer or something well before your telomeres would otherwise become life-threateningly short. But for the aerobicized Andrews, for anyone who takes reasonable care of himself, a drug that activates telomerase might slow down the baseline rate at which the body falls apart. Andrews likens the underlying causes of aging, free radicals and the rest, to sticks of dynamite, with truncated telomeres being the stick with the shortest fuse. “I believe there’s a really good chance that if we defuse that stick,” he says, “and the person doesn’t smoke and doesn’t get obese, it wouldn’t be surprising if they lived to be 150 years old. That means they’re going to have 50 more years to be around when somebody solves the other aging problems.”
But in his race to cure aging, Andrews may himself be running out of time. The stock-market crash of 2008 nearly wiped out two investors who had until then been his primary funders. Without the money to continue refining the nearly 40 telomerase-activating chemicals he and his team had already discovered, Andrews made the decision last September to cut a deal with John W. Anderson, the founder of Isagenix, an Arizona-based “network marketing” supplement company. This month, Isagenix will launch an anti-aging product containing several natural compounds that Sierra Sciences has verified to have “telomere-supporting” properties. It’s not the powerful drug Andrews originally envisioned, but he says he believes it will promote “health and well-being” and just possibly generate enough cash to underwrite the expensive “medicinal chemistry” required to come up with a more fully developed anti-aging compound—one attractive enough to bring in a billionaire or a Big Pharma partner with pockets deep enough to take a drug candidate through the FDA’s time-consuming and fabulously expensive approval process.
“I want to cure my aging,” Andrews tells me, “my friends’ and family’s aging, my investors’ aging, their friends’ and families’ aging, and make a ton of money. And I want to cure everybody else’s aging too—I put that probably equal to making a ton of money."