By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
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Editor's note: The following is chapter 1 of "Chasing Life" by CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, published by Warner Wellness.
As I started to talk about my modern-day quest for immortality with colleagues and contacts I had developed over the years, I heard murmurs about a group of Russians who were convinced they had stumbled on the fountain of youth. More specifically, they were confident they had developed ways to achieve a sort of practical immortality. In fact, the word echoing through the longevity chambers was that we were rapidly arriving at a time when the only limit on life span might simply be an individual's decision to stop living. Visions of youthful 120-year-olds with several genetically perfect transplanted body parts, exchanged like a muffler or transmission, danced through my head. These Russians heard of my chase for life and started trying to make contact with me. Surely they wanted me to use my platform as a journalist to shine a light on their own work. Honestly, at first, I was skeptical, and it hardly seemed worth pursuing. As I read more and more about these doctors and the patients who stood to benefit, however, I became fascinated, if not obsessed.
Doctors there invited me to see firsthand what they called not only the slowing of aging, but the actual reversing of it. I couldn't resist, and with an Indiana Jones sense of adventure, I immediately took them up on their offer, which meant taking a trip to Russia in the heart of winter. As I disembarked the plane into the 20-degree weather, I mused to myself, "Okay, I get it, antiaging equals a deep freeze in Siberia." Still, donning a thick, gray wool scarf and one of those ridiculous hats with the earflaps, I started my chase for life.
It is in an upscale business district not far from the Kremlin that I meet Dr. Alexander Tepliashin. He is famous here because he offers something hardly anyone will turn down. With a smile and a series of simple injections under the skin, Tepliashin offers "youth" in just about ten minutes. Tepliashin euphemistically calls these injections "treatments" at his Beauty Plaza Health & Spa. He promises to not only make clients look younger but to revitalize their hair and skin and give them more energy. Not surprisingly, there is one small catch. What he is offering is untested and illegal in much of the world.
Tepliashin is a fleshy man with thinning hair combed straight back and a taste for Ukranian Captain Black cigars. His ultramodern clinic takes up the top two floors of a building on a street populated with such luxury shops as Versace and Cartier. An angled glass ceiling brings in lots of natural light, casting a futuristic glow on the furniture. A metal spiral staircase in the center of the lobby leads to treatment rooms on the second floor.
When I come in from the January air outside, Tepliashin greets me warmly and invites me into his office, where coffee and tea are offered all around. Through his translator, he tells me how he is a man of science helping people with a treatment that is in extremely high demand. He shows me articles he has written and informs me of his growing reputation across Europe. Still, there is something unnerving about him. Perhaps it is that he seems comfortable staring at me for several long seconds while not saying a word. Or could be the two all black clad Russian strongmen who are sitting rigidly near the back of his office.
From his desk, Tepliashin likes to watch his computer screen, which offers voyeuristic, closed-circuit views of the operating room, lobby, and elsewhere in the clinic. Small, red rectangles on the screen track any movement, such as a new patient walking through the front door or a young scientist rushing down the hall with small, red-capped vials. Tepliashin's gaze, even while talking, appears nearly constantly drawn to the screen, which gives him the air of a scientist in a Bond movie. Lab technicians, all of them attractive young women in tight, white uniforms, add to the Dr. No feel of the place.
Tepliashin stares at me firmly and proclaims that his treatments are safe without me even asking the question. More than that, he says with a nearly dismissive wave of his hand, he can guarantee results. He is so sure of his treatments, he has even injected himself, he tells me while rolling up his sleeves. It has given him a more youthful visage and lowered his cholesterol in the process, all from a treatment that took less time than a
blood pressure reading. He strokes his face and runs his fingers through his hair. Other benefits, he tells me, include darker hair, more youthful skin, and more energy. Having never met him before, it is hard for me to tell how much Tepliashin has benefited from his own treatments, but I doubt he could look any more content than he did at that moment. Yes, his just might be the face of a man who has found something that has eluded adventurers for the last thousand years.
As I peer into a vial Tepliashin is shaking back and forth, he whispers two words loud enough for everyone in the room to hear: stem cells. Yes, Tepliashin is selling stem cell treatments right under the nose of authorities, who have outlawed them outright. In fact, he runs the best-known Moscow stem cell clinic, which even advertises on the Internet and boasts a clientele from Croatia to as far away as Paris. Coming from the United States, the scientific capital of the world, I feel woefully behind. In the United States, we still only talk about the possibility of stem cell treatments. Here in Russia, where abortions outnumber live births two to one, fetuses and their stem cells are in abundant supply, and they are being used at an ever-quickening pace.
Stem cell treatments have become part of Moscow's gossip mill and underground society. Rumors circulate about which well-known Muscovites have undergone them. The pharmaceutical billionaire Vladimir Bryntsalov boasted to the press that his once-pocked skin is now smooth as a baby's, thanks to stem cell injections. When the Ukranian leader Viktor Yushchenko's smooth complexion suddenly became discolored and pocked during his 2004 run for president, the common rumor among Muscovites was that stem cell injections gone bad were the cause. We later learned it was dioxin poisoning making him ill and riddling his face with the acne-like scars.
As I traveled through Moscow and visited various laboratories and "beauty clinics," I realized that many prominent Russian citizens truly believe they have discovered something astounding, so much so that watchdog organizations overseeing the clinics are willing to turn their eyes the other way when it comes to enforcing the law. Despite the widespread knowledge of their existence, cosmetic stem cell treatments are officially illegal in Russia. You wouldn't know it from the Internet, though, where you can find Russian-language sites offering the treatments. Some stories have reported as many as fifty stem cell clinics in the Russian capital. Not surprisingly, most proprietors at these clinics prefer to remain in the shadows and didn't want to talk. That was not the case with Tepliashin.
When we meet, Tepliashin proudly shows me around his clinics and describes the process: After a battery of tests, patients undergo an operation under local anesthetic during which he removes 5 grams or more of fat tissue from the abdominal area or the thigh. Technicians place the fat cells in a vial, where they are put in a solution and spun in a centrifuge. From there, the precious stem cells are extracted and placed in a special growth medium, where they are incubated. It turns out stem cells are located in many different areas of the body, including your bone marrow and even your fat. Once the cells have multiplied sufficiently, vials of stem cells are placed in a tank of liquid nitrogen to induce a state of hibernation, awaiting injection under the skin. This turns out to be a critically important point: because people receiving the treatments get injections of their own cells, there is no risk of rejection the way there would be with cells taken from fetuses.
Tepliashin says his clients get their money's worth. More than looking younger, Tepliashin says stem cell treatments make people live longer, too, reversing the effects of stress, bad food, radiation from X-rays, and viruses. In short, these treatments help people chase life. Imagine a lifetime of eating cheeseburgers and absorbing sunshine on the beach without sunblock potentially reversed, according to Tepliashin, by using your own stem cells to simply rebuild and rejuvenate your damaged cells with fresh, new ones.
It is certainly true that stem cell treatments have not undergone any of the sorts of clinical trials required in the United States and Europe that would confirm they are safe and demonstrate they are effective. Still, there appears to be no shortage of willing clients from Russia's moneyed elite and from elsewhere in Europe. Standing next to a squat, cylindrical vat of liquid nitrogen, a gloved technician lifts a tray holding as many as a thousand vials -- representing about five hundred paying customers. The price tag is not cheap: 10,000 to 25,000 for a course of treatments ($12,000--$30,000). As far as I can tell, they aren't willing to wait for a New England Journal of Medicine article to tell them what they think they already know that stem cells can not only stop them from getting older but can actually turn the clock the other way and make them biologically younger.
"They are used to a comfortable life," Tepliashin tells me. "They do not want to become old. They want to stay young. And we can say that it's a routine procedure. It can be done easily." Tepliashin is a sort of modern-day explorer in the quest for immortality, and he believes he has had the most success. Truth is, we won't know how much success for decades to come, but attempting to stop the clock of aging and stay young is nothing new. Over the centuries, scientists, alchemists, doctors, explorers, and others have tried to find or concoct rejuvenating potions or develop other ways to extend the human life span. Some of their would-be remedies for aging included items not likely to be found at a local health food store: dog testicles, a stag's heart, the breath of a virgin. History is filled with exotic elixirs offering the false promise of eternal youth.
Juan Ponce de León set out looking for the fountain of youth but wound up discovering Florida, by accident, in 1513. I can almost see the T-shirt. Ancient Hebrew and Hindu tales also told of bodies of water capable of conferring eternal life. More than two thousand years ago, Chinese emperors thought there was nothing more important than sending maritime expeditions in search of immortality. They weren't looking for life-giving water but the Isles of the Eastern Sea, where immortals were supposed to live. In ancient Greece, there was a belief that in a remote part of the world lived the Hyperboreans, a people free of all natural ills, with a life span of one thousand years. In more recent times, scientists traveled to isolated regions of the Caucasus in what was the Soviet Union, chasing reports of extreme longevity. Soviet scientists claimed Russian citizens had lived for 145 years. The Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan and the northern Andes also gained a reputation as places where people were thought to be extremely long-lived. In all three cases, the tales of remarkable longevity turned out to be more about poor record keeping than magnificent health.
Despite all humankind's efforts, we have remained constrained by a life span that has an outer boundary set by the Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years, 164 days. Hers is the longest confirmed life span. Even the fittest among us get old. Jack La Lanne is still swimming into his nineties, but he has not escaped the aging process despite his lifelong devotion to exercise and healthy living.
In order to begin our collective chase for life, it is important to establish a few points before we get into some of the anti-aging prescriptions. First of all, aging, in and of itself, is a major risk factor for ailments including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and a number of other conditions. Also, no one in the United States has officially died of old age since 1951, when state and federal agencies updated the standard list of contributing and underlying causes of death. "Old age" was dropped from the list that year. Despite this clerical fact, aging is a process that causes people to lose physiological function from the cellular level to organs to systems to the point at which they are vulnerable to heart disease, stroke, and cancer the three leading causes of death in older Americans.
In many ways, it is much easier to describe aging than to define it. The symptoms of aging are both subtle and obvious. We don't see or hear as well, our hair turns gray, our skin wrinkles, our reflexes slow, our mind becomes less sharp, our muscles become weaker, our bones become more brittle, our lung capacity diminishes. These are the obvious signs of aging. Still, watching someone age is a lot like watching grass grow: if you look for changes every day, you will likely be disappointed. The aging process is a slow, ticking clock that makes each of us older next year.
Obviously, we don't all age at the same rate. Our clocks tick at different speeds. One person may be spry at eighty, while a second may be bedridden. Even in the same individual, change can occur at different speeds. Someone may be mentally sharp but suffer from heart disease. Another person may have weak eyes but healthy lungs. If we are lucky enough to make it to old age, we will certainly have a combination of strengths and weaknesses, compared to our peers.
One question we should ask -- and I'll explore this in the book -- is what keeps us from growing old even more quickly than we do. After all, we humans are relatively lucky. The longest-lived lion only makes it 30 years. Monkeys can live to 50 and eagles to 80. Only the turtle appears to have us beat on the longevity scale, with a maximum life span of about 150 years.
Not all creatures suffer the indignities of aging, though. Alligators, Galápagos tortoises, sharks, sturgeons, and lobsters keep on growing throughout their lives and show no obvious loss of function as they get older. The 50-year-old lobster will reportedly snap its claw closed just as quickly as a younger lobster.
Another important point: most of us would not choose to live longer for its own sake. We do not want to extend our years if that extra time on the planet lacks a certain quality of life. We want to live longer, but we want a sound mind and at least a minimally functional body when we do. Given the choice, most of us would surely choose to live like an incandescent bulb shining brightly until the moment the light goes out. We want to live longer and die shorter. It would be ideal if we could live the majority of our lives with the body of a young teenager. Consider this: if we were able to maintain our body as it is when we're 11 -- when our healing capacity is at its maximum -- we could live for an estimated 1,200 years.