The True Believer

Posted by Pete Shanks on July 24th, 2008

Michael West
Michael West

Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) may be on its last legs, but the driving force behind it is still pursuing his long-standing goal of immortality. Michael West's interests have evolved from the family trucking business to telomeres to stem cells to cloning and are now brushing up against cryonics, the controversial practice of freezing people (Ted Williams being perhaps the most notorious case) for hoped-for later resuscitation.

West founded Geron and named it with a reference to "old age" (as in, avoiding it), using seed money raised from "some fairly eccentric people who were interested in living forever" (quoted in Stephen Hall's Merchants of Immortality). At Geron, he was an early advocate of embryonic stem cells, which were not a major priority then. Eventually he was forced out in 1998, ironically just before human cell lines were isolated at Wisconsin in work supported by Geron.

He then founded Origen Therapeutics, with the idea of genetically altering chickens. Soon, however, he joined ACT, where Jose Cibelli and soon Robert Lanza were working on cloning projects. West either invented or at least publicized the "clone your own spare parts" theory of stem-cell research, which has now largely fallen by the wayside. Along the way, ACT became notorious for stunts (such as cloning a gaur, which promptly died) and exaggerations. They also spun off subsidiaries CIMA Biotechnology (avian cloning) and Cyagra (cattle cloning), both of which West headed for a while. West stepped down as ACT's President and Chief Scientific Officer "to pursue new opportunities" in October 2007.

In 2002, he became a Director of BioTime and in 2007 became its CEO and promptly brought the company "into the field of regenerative medicine." They soon launched Embryome Sciences, Inc. BioTime's previous focus had been on tools for low-temperature surgery, a natural offshoot of its founders' interest in cryonics -- the company derives from Trans Time, another of whose offshoots is Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a leading cryonics company.

West has been roundly criticized for "science by press release" -- not least in these pages -- but you have to admire his consistency and dedication. Apparently he really does want to live forever. Or maybe he's just working his way through nine lives; not counting corporate reorganizations, he seems to be up to eight companies now.

Posted in Animal Technologies, Biotech & Pharma, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Research Cloning, Stem Cell Research


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