Thomas Perls: Longevity researcher
'The older you get, the healthier you've been'
By Porter Anderson
(CNN) -- "I was 16 and working summers as an orderly in a nursing home. I was seeing old people in really bad conditions. Even at my age then, I could tell that half of them didn't even need to be there, they were just zonked out on medications or physical restraints."
Still in his teens, in Littleton, Colorado, Thomas Perls, M.D., M.P.H., was discovering what would become a career concentration and, today, a potential triumph in longevity studies. He's a co-author and lead researcher on the chromosome 4 research described in findings being published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"It wasn't too different from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' back in 1976," he says, recalling the nursing home setting he worked in. "Robert Butler's 'Growing Old in America: Why Survive?' had just come out, so I got to read that. All these things made me realize I wanted to go into medicine and wanted to work with older people."
So focused on older people now are the efforts of Perls and his associates that they'd like your assistance -- if you're a centenarian in good shape, or a relative of one, Perls would like to hear from you at Centagenetix, the new company he's forming today. The number to call is (866) LIVE-100.
What they're trying to do is explore what he calls "an ideal genome" -- a genetically ordained health context in which most age-related illnesses are either postponed drastically or deflected completely. That, he says, is what appears to be making it possible for some people to live to 100 and longer in strikingly good shape.
"There was only a one-in-20 chance," he says, that such health could be occurring in exceptional longevity without a genetic underpinning. And he and study co-authors Lou M. Kunkel, Ph.D. and Annibale A. Puca, M.D., believe they now can proceed to locate the precise genes responsible for such longevity -- that is, for the delay or deflection of age-related diseases. The search is on.
Because this work takes enormous resources of funding and equipment, it so far has been conducted at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Children's Hospital Boston and other institutions. The identification of the chromosome region, however, has made it possible for MPM Capital, a biotech investment firm, to raise the venture capital for Centagenetix.
Perls is a geriatrician based at Beth Israel Deaconess and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School whose New England Centenarian Study has served as a key hub of the research. His book -- written with Margery Hutter Silver, Ed.D., and John F. Lauerman, a writer in the Boston area -- is titled: "Living to 100: Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age" (Basic Books, 2000).
There was a point in his research, Perls says, that the centenarians he was covering didn't seem to have a lot in common. "Except that they had a lot of brothers and sisters. Living brothers and sisters. We discovered a few families with an exceptional clustering of longevity.
"In one case, there was a picture in a local paper of a 108-year-old man blowing out his birthday candles as his 103-year-old sister looked on. We went down to see them. They told us about the 97-year-old sister. And there were two other centenarians who had lived up until two years before that.
"So here was an incredible clustering of five siblings out of seven. We've since found about seven families like that."
Raising the bar
Perls was born in Palo Alto, California, the son of parents from Germany. His father, a physicist with the United States' space program, moved the family from California to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, then back to California for work with Lockheed, then finally to Colorado, where he was with Martin Marietta.
At the same time he'd been working in the nursing home, a biology teacher, Dorothy Rupel, had helped him know that medicine was his goal. He took an undergraduate degree in biology at the Claremont Colleges of California and did volunteer research stints during his summers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and other institutions.
Taking his M.D. at the University of Rochester's School of Medicine, he then did a residency in internal medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, which serves as the Los Angeles County hospital. There, he met his wife, Leslie Smoot, who would end up a pediatric cardiologist who's now based, with Perls, at Harvard Medical School as an instructor in pediatrics.
Perls and Smoot have three children. Hannah is 12, Nick is 9 and Travis is 4. Interestingly, Smoot was 40 when she had Travis and Perls and his associates had published an article in Nature about how women who have children after 40 may have a better chance than others of living to 100.
And now, with this new research in place -- borne in so many cases of Perls' studies of families in which exceptional longevity is "clustered" -- you hear a compelling sensitivity to his own closest ones. Even as Perls closes the deal on his new company and fields media and peer questions about his research, he says, "I think the most important thing is that the kids and Leslie and I are healthy."
Obviously, the sense of his research has taken on a clear, personal dimension.
"I'm just very hopeful that this work will lead to a lot of really important studies in aging.
"There are two ways I want this stuff to affect society.
"One of them, I think, is already happening, and that's trying to debunk the myth that the older you get, the sicker you get. Instead, the older get, the healthier you've been -- that's what we're seeing with the centenarians. To live to older ages, you can't have been sick for a period of time. You have to age slowly or escape these age-related diseases.
"And the other thing I'm hoping is that this raises the bar. This makes it possible for many more people to think that 80 is fairly attainable.
"I'd like to think we can go on to discover some disease-resistance genes, understand how they work and find the biochemical pathways they affect. These discoveries could lead to drugs that could make people more like centenarians. We think the centenarians represent the ideal genome. We could be looking at a very efficient molecular genetic filter."
But before that can happen, Perls and his associates have a lot of work ahead. He likens today's research point to having found a group of large cities, the region on chromosome 4, in which certain houses contain the secrets being looked for, the longevity gene(s) themselves.
"Now we have to find the house."
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