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“Mike is what some may call a science visionary. As opposed to the typical scientist who works on a problem and advances it one step at a time, Mike makes quantum leaps into areas that are high risk/high payoff,” says Jerry Shay, distinguished chair in geriatric research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

From “Skinny Nerd” to Physics Major

In the fall of 1971, Michael West found a Rensselaer brochure in his high school guidance office in Niles, Mich., amid similar publications from a host of Michigan schools. “RPI was head and shoulders above the others in science, so I applied,” he says, adding that he had been pursuing science on his own since early childhood.
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It is ACT’s work on human embryos that makes headlines. At the heart of the matter is semantics, the status of a human ES cell, and the definition of life.

 
“I was a skinny nerd scientist,” West says. “The chemistry and electronics lab above my garage could rival any high school lab. I was playing with alloys and made one from antimony and manganese and found it had magnetic properties, which neither of the original metals had. I was in the fifth grade, and the science book we had on magnetic materials mentioned such elements as cobalt, but never this metal alloy. So I wrote to the author.” The correspondence that ensued became part of West’s application to Rensselaer.

Although West enrolled in the physics honors program when he arrived at Rensselaer and calls theoretical physics “my first love,” as a sophomore he had a change of heart that led to a change of major.

“I started to think about the meaning of life and became interested in philosophy and religion. But I began to think that spending the rest of my life chasing equations couldn’t make the world a better place. I wanted to study people,” he says.

The Road to Biology

After graduating from Rensselaer with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, West pursued an interest in evolutionary biology by enrolling in a master’s degree program at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich., a Seventh-day Adventist Church school that he dubs “the original ‘creationists.’ ” West praised the caliber of scientists at the school. “I learned critical thinking there. I was trying to harmonize science and religion,” West says.

West next turned his attention to the science of aging as a Ph.D. student in cell biology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. There he studied human cells dividing in culture, which, similar to their counterparts in the body, obey an internal clock that permits about 50 divisions. West was particularly intrigued by the cells of the germline, which give rise to eggs and sperm. These cells do not adhere to a clock and are, in a sense, immortal.

West further investigated the physical basis of cellular aging — shrinking chromosome tips, or telomeres — while working in Jerry Shay’s lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Shay’s work would later focus on an enzyme, telomerase, that adds DNA to chromosome tips. In most cells, telomerase is shut off. The chromosomes whittle down with each division until they reach a point at which division ceases. But telomerase remains activated in germline cells, stem cells, and cancer cells, and these cells divide indefinitely. Manipulating telomerase could have profound ramifications. Shutting off the enzyme could short-circuit tumor cells; turning it on might reboot aging cells.

While writing his Ph.D. dissertation, West began medical school at the University of Texas and worked whenever he could in Shay’s lab. As West’s interest in telomeres grew, the third year of medical school, with its clinical rotations and sleep deprivation, suddenly seemed less attractive. “Pieces of a puzzle were beginning to fit together. I realized that if I stuck with it to become an M.D., it would be too late to start a company, which is what I wanted to do because there was so much to be done,” West says. So West took a leave of absence from medical school to focus on the business of science research.

With venture capitalists intrigued by the idea of a biotechnology company devoted to cellular aging, Geron was born, first in Dallas, and settling eventually in Menlo Park, Calif., where it remains today.

A Sheep and Chickens Lead the Way

By 1995, West was considering another approach to the question of cellular aging. Why not find a way to nurture stem cells and then coax them to specialize into cell types that could be used to treat disease?

“There should be a cell, a human embryonic stem (ES) cell, that is completely undifferentiated, and immortal,” says West. Such cells would remain able to specialize as anything, a rare quality that biologists term “totipotent.” “With cells that won’t grow old that stay totipotent, you can make anything. For aging, that could be huge,” West adds.

At that time, obvious sources of ES cells were fertility clinics, where thousands of frozen in vitro fertilized ova and early embryos lay unused. The idea was to harvest ES cells from the blastocyst stage, when the unformed embryo consists of 150 or so cells, comprising the inner cell mass, nestled within a hollowed-out ball of cells that give rise to the extra-embryonic membranes.

But using cells from very early embryos nurtured in fertility clinics did not solve the problem of a recipient’s immune system rejecting implanted “foreign” cells. The solution to the problem came from an unexpected source — a Scottish sheep named Dolly. “Dolly had shown that you can take a cell backward in development, reverse the arrow,” West says. “If you can make an embryo, you can make personalized ES cells!”

The process since has become known as “therapeutic cloning,” a term fraught with political, ethical, and moral implications. A nucleus can be extracted from a skin cell of a person with a particular disorder and transferred to an egg whose own nucleus has been removed to grow an inner cell mass genetically identical to the nucleus donor. Then the ES cells can be isolated to develop the needed cell types to treat the illness. Even though an embryo is created and then destroyed, it does not come from the union of sperm and egg.

With visions of Dolly floating in his head, West left Geron in February 1998 and headed to Scotland to pick the brain of Ian Wilmut, Dolly’s “dad.”

About that time, West co-founded a company, Origen, to develop ES cell technology in chickens, to improve poultry characteristics and to genetically modify the animals to produce human pharmaceuticals in their eggs. But chickens weren’t to be West’s future
 

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Rensselaer Magazine: September 2002
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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