Tempus Fugit - A Death’s Door Story
Ben Howard’s article had been a ball ache. Caught between the antagonistic pincers of his editor’s inveterate timidity and the censorial attentions of the paper’s legal team, he’d found himself attempting to nail jelly to the wall. Half his material cut, his references combed over with a painfully forensic scrutiny he understood but did not welcome, the damn piece had only been published after his threat to resign.
The rarest of creatures, he was a deeply principled journalist and every article he submitted represented a hill he would gladly die on. Once he’d sunk his teeth into the meat of an important story, he made an alligator drowning a zebra look like predatorial insouciance. He’d withstand the horrified squeals of alarm, the desperate tug of war between opponents and the career ending blood in the water, but he would not let go. His reputation rested upon tackling beasts others might sympathise with, camouflaged as they were by the stripes of legal retaliation and public naivety.
Checking his watch, he threw himself into a waiting black cab and arrived at the Dorchester fifteen minutes later. Time. He never had enough of it. Deadlines oppressively leeching away his life as surely as the sun’s orbiting of the earth inevitably ended anyone’s story. Paying the driver, he entered the plush interior of the reception area and soon found himself silently ascending its opulently furnished floors. The lift gave a soft-toned ping and he stepped out, his feet immediately sinking into the lush pile of the penthouse suite’s lurid carpet.
He'd been amazed that Dr François Francoeur had agreed to the interview. Ben’s latest article had been a savage attack, eviscerating Francoeur’s public profile, disinterring a body of suppressed facts the good doctor would rather have left undisturbed beneath the unexamined soil of faux prestige and public ignorance. Francoeur’s senescence research facility and its activity had attracted much journalistic speculation, however Ben’s article had unearthed material deleterious to its desire to remain both obscure and unmolested by unhelpful curiosity.
He set up and awaited the presence of the enigmatic doctor. Fidgeting nervously with his Dictaphone, his thoughts turned to strategy. Getting anything useful out of Francoeur would require a combination of tact and tenacity. He’d pander to the man’s ego and hope hubris would loosen his notoriously recalcitrant tongue.
If that failed to crack this nut wide open, he’d resort to plan B: confront his quarry and provoke an indignant copy-rich rant. Either way, he’d leave with a story and present it as an exposé guaranteeing reader interest. Francoeur might not know it, but he was about to become a hapless fly caught in Ben’s investigative web and his questions would exsanguinate his victim one way, or another.
“Ah, Mr Howard ! How nice it is to meet you. One should always make the acquaintance of one’s enemies if misunderstandings are to be resolved and friendships made where mistaken enmity has sadly flourished”. With that, Francoeur sat down across from Ben exuding an air of geniality his small black eyes betrayed.
Dressed in a suit worth more than Ben’s quarterly rent bill, the older man made no effort to shake Ben’s outstretched hand, but gave him a contrived smile that made Ben inwardly cringe. Something about Francoeur made Ben deeply uncomfortable, a fact he signalled like a poker’s tell by returning the smile a little too effusively.
“You know Mr Howard, your article really did trouble me. My work is important, even vital in ways you have failed to consider. Ageing, Mr Howard is an existential threat not to be palliated, but overcome. You seem to have presented to the world an image of me as both sinister and mercurial. For that I can forgive you, but you really must hear me out before your pen pains me further”. Dr Francoeur allowed his malevolent eyes to bore into those of his interlocutor, his smile broadening as his sense of entitlement swelled like an engorged penis.
“I fully recognise the stated aims of your institute Dr Francoeur, finding them ostensibly worthy. Trouble is that your methods are not remotely transparent. Too many trusted sources have suggested that the medical advances you concern yourself with are serving a purpose beyond the platitudes you drip into the public consciousness. Bluntly, I want to know how you intend to halt the ageing process and why your institute’s stock is rising faster than the UK’s interest rate”.
“You claim to be close to a eureka moment but won’t publish anything in the usual journals. Your comments about euthanasia being economically necessary, but ethically unpalatable, got the spotlight on you…as did the plane crash in which half of your top team died”.
Ben had chosen provocation rather than sycophancy. Francoeur did not strike him as a man who could be flattered into disclosure. Some men don’t need the respect or approval of others given that they have that of the only person they care about…themselves. Francoeur crossed his legs, a picture of sartorial elegance, his sixty-years at variance with his toned physique and unblemished skin. His thick black hair austerely swept back giving him the unsettling appearance of a well turned-out vampire.
Francoeur’s expression darkened, his smile surrendering to the diurnal forces of the night within his soul. Recognising the shift in his demeanour, he resurrected the sun… his face once again beaming with the disingenuous smile with which he had greeted his adversary. Beneath his mock warmth, Ben could sense palpable malevolence. His strategy might just work. Keep digging, tip Francoeur into venomous indignation and hoover up the good stuff.
“You see, Mr Howard, we have a problem. Aristotle was a defeatist, believing ageing was the inevitable result of life’s ‘vital heat’ slowly being extinguished by time itself. Our species has occupied itself with external factors threatening the survival of the individual. Sanitation, robust food supplies, vaccines, medical remedies for disease and relentless advances in life-saving surgical procedures”.
“As we begin understanding ageing itself, we can safely conclude that it is neither necessary or inevitable. Mutation accumulation and antagonistic pleiotropy are now understood, and we have passively accepted that ageing is simply an accidental evolutionary phenomenon whereby the body slowly loses its ability to repair itself. Mitochondria become less efficient as mitosis occurs, chromosomes unravel, and our tissue and organs become pathologically clogged with detritus caused by metabolism and its cousin, mitosis”.
“My institute is exploring the biological consequences of ageing and has cast these as problems to be solved, not merely ameliorated. I will tell you why my work is of the most vital importance shortly, but first you must understand why my efforts and those of my team are entirely credible and rooted in nature’s truths. If you will simply hear me out, you may well find you have a wonderful story to share with your readers and one offering them all…hope !”
Ben checked to see if his dictaphone was working properly, opened his notebook and signalled his willingness to listen. Inwardly he rejoiced at the prospect of exposing this fraud, hoisting on the petard of his own wild pseudo-science. His editor may well fear a defamation claim, but Ben would be doing nothing other than reporting Francoeur’s volunteered words. He would not be able to litigate in response to a sanctioned series of direct quotes. He’d let the reader do the real writing.
“Hope, dear Mr Howard…the preserver of all! Take Turriptopsisdohrnii, a species of hydrozoan perhaps better known to you and your readers as the Portuguese Man-of-War jellyfish. It has two distinct phases in its lifecycle. Firstly, its juvenile state as a polyp and then its adult state as a mudusa”.
“Of course butterflies and frogs also exhibit this phenomenon, however they proceed from one state to the other and die. Our jellyfish is most remarkable in that should the medusa experience physical damage, or a threat to its ecological survival, it undergoes cellular trans-differentiation and reverts back to its juvenile polyp state. This process is seemingly eternally repeatable lending our humble jellyfish the appearance of immortality”.
“We can turn to yet another one of nature’s miracles, the Planaria. You may know this complex organism as a flatworm. It possesses bilateral symmetry, a brain and other sophisticated internal organ structures. It’s nature’s greatest regenerator ! Did you know it can grow its entire body from a single remaining piece, including its brain. Further, it has been proven that planaria can even transfer memories from a missing brain to that freshly grown”.
Ben struggled to suppress a laugh and completely failed to disguise his cynical joy at having catalysed such a motherload of utter crap. He suspected that Francoeur’s facts were entirely true, but to apply them to humans was an act of lunacy. This stuff was gold dust. Francoeur was setting himself up for an ignoble and very public fall. His editor would be signing his future expense forms with gay abandon, not to mention giving him a pay rise and more column inches to fill.
“Now Mr Howard, you might think all this rather far fetched in terms of human ageing and possibly even thinking me as you so quaintly say ‘cracked’. Do bear with me. We have attempted to slow down the aging process and even rejuvenate aged organs and tissues. Mice, the eternal friends of the vivisectionist have played their invaluable part in our quest. Using dietary intervention and genetic modification, we have made some well documented progress”.
“Now, studies have shown that humans are capable of living to one hundred and fifteen years of age. A number further supported by the esteemed work of Dr Hayflick. Before his pioneering work in the 1960s, we erroneously assumed normal human cells could keep performing mitosis infinitely. This is not so. Hayflick demonstrated that mitosis can only occur between forty to sixty times before cellular death takes place”.
“You know Mr Howard, we spend approximately one fifth of our lives resisting the rising tide of accumulated biological failures causing the degenerative diseases we characterise as late life morbidity. What nonsense!”.
“I told you I would explain why the process of ageing must be halted and indeed I will. Did you know that eighty percent of America’s healthcare costs are directly associated with chronic late-life disease ? Frankly, our society is ethically obliged to foot the bill for this phenomenon and surely you must recognise that failure to slow or reverse the ageing process can only lead to the economic genocide of our species !”.
“Euthanasia is of course the best solution but not to the liking of those ignorant of its intrinsic and extrinsic societal benefits. Fools ! Let me establish a point supporting my argument. Between 2015 and 2030 it is estimated that the number of people on the planet aged over sixty will jump from nine hundred million to one and a half billion. By 2050 that number is predicted to be over two billion”.
“If I cannot save our species by encouraging the global adoption of euthanasia as a default social good, then I must humbly seek a means of doing what I can to alleviate the individual burden of ageing itself, despite my stated concerns. Extending life span under the current circumstances will only hasten our financial ruin. I will have nothing to do with such idiotic notions”.
“However, increasing ‘healthspan’ is another matter altogether. By such a term I mean increasing the proportion of life not plagued by the ill-effects of ageing…disease and pathology-free old age. This is a worthy objective Mr Howard”.
Ben had him. Francoeur intended to monetise the morbid fear of old age. He clearly intended to sell his snake oil to the highest bidder, offering them freedom from the perils of getting old. Based on concocted scientific baloney, he’d sell his institute to the most deep pocketed bidder and bugger off to a Caribbean retreat with his billions.
He’d seen it happen to GlaxoSmithKline in 2008 when they bought the biotech business Sirtiris for $720m. Sirtiris claimed to have a drug call Resveratrol which could turn back the hands of our biological clocks. It could not, and Glaxo wound the company up in 2013. Francoeur needed his reputation intact, if he was to pull off his scam.
Francoeur needed Ben to write something positive and would be desperate for his cooperation. Francoeur paused his monologue and took a sip of water from the glass before him: “Mr Howard, my institute is solely concerned with exploring ways in which we can increase ‘healthspan’ and my lack of transparency is nothing more than a sound business imperative. In a capitalistic market, such knowledge must be appropriately safeguarded. I am an agent of good and my institute the vehicle by which I will relieve mankind’s suffering. Can I rely upon you to share this message with your readers ?”.
Ben clicked off his dictaphone and packed his notebook into his laptop bag. Addressing Francoeur squarely, emboldened by both professional zeal and moral outrage, he responded.
“You are nothing more than an ersatz Dr Moreau looking to cash in on a wonder drug you have no hope of finding. Fuck knows how you plan to peddle this shit to investors, or a buyer…all you‘ve done is convince me that you are either insane, or the idiot half-brother of Gordon Gekko. Come to think of it, you remind me of Dr Frankenstein before he found a conscience. So, no Dr Francoeur, I’m going to report just what I’ve heard, and no more. The litmus test you need to fear will be public opinion, not to mention the condemnation of your scientific piers. I’m leaving”.
“Ah, Mr Howard how nice to see you again ! I trust you slept well. Such a long flight and I am grateful for your continued interest in my venture. Pity we could not chat whilst my jet brought us here. I must apologise, but you gave me no opportunity to engage with you. I can’t believe what a sound sleeper you are ! Never mind, you are awake now and we can begin where we left off my friend”.
Ben listened intently. He wanted answers. He always wanted answers. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a journalist depended upon curiosity for his living. He really had no choice in the matter. Professional imperatives aside, Ben would not be passing up this opportunity to hear more.
“As I explained when we last met, our bodies accumulate cells which have gone into senescence. They become toxic. Senolytics can be administered to seek out and destroy these cells, however such work is at best in its incipient, faltering first steps. Fasting can of course arrest mitosis, but that is no solution worthy of exploration”.
“We have of course turned to mesenchymal stem cell therapy, however even these techniques lack both finesse and more importantly, efficacy. Epigenetic interventions, especially those focussing upon the Yamanaka Factors, have intimated some signs of hope, but alas, turning back time in the manner of Benjamin Button is still decades ahead of us, if reachable at all”.
“Once again our friends, the mice, have steered us towards the solution as far as increasing ‘healthspan’ is concerned. Mice stitched together share the same circulatory system. Oddly, a word I deplore as a scientist, we have conducted experiments whereby stitching a living juvenile mouse to an elderly adult mouse and seen remarkable results ! The young mouse ages prematurely and the elderly mouse undergoes regenerative processes we can barely comprehend. Recalling our friend the Portuguese Man-of-War, we seem able to catalyse cellular trans-differentiation in the elderly mouse until the young mouse sadly dies”.
“Further laboratorial experimentation of a less than appealing fashion has enabled us to establish that the blood plasma of the juvenile or young mouse participating in our endeavours, contains a protein known as GDF11. Interestingly, this particular protein is not present in old subjects and abundant in those far younger. Extracting it from the living bodies of the young mice has not been remotely effective. It seems that some biological factor requires something in the blood plasma of both old and young subject to be present for rejuvenation to occur”.
“Given the work of Dr Aubrey Grey and his institute, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, it would appear that performing a blood transfusion upon a human subject could in theory allow mankind to move beyond the Longevity Escape Velocity condemning us to late life morbidity. If you like, the periodic flushing out of zombie cells, mitochondrial detritus and malfunctioning cells causing pathological disease in later life. Performing such a process would turn back the human biological clock and perhaps even lead to immortality free from senility”.
"Regrettably, we have not as yet found the complimentary protein required to form a recipe for such a blood transfusion. Fortunately, the world’s billionaires seem more than eager to fund my research, on condition that they receive the fruits of my labour. It would seem, that they, like Machiavelli, place more store in the ends than the means and have left me in peace to conduct my experiments. Clearly, I must go about my work in rather a clandestine fashion as medical ethics can be both bothersome, and tedious”.
“I’m so delighted that you have agreed to assist me in my quest. When we last spoke, you seemed reluctant to do so…Iconfess to have felt somewhat disappointed”. With that the disembodied voice of Dr Francoeur fell silent and the room’s lights came on, mercilessly illuminating all.
Ben was strapped to a stainless-steel operating table, entirely paralysed save for his eyelids. An elderly male lay next to him, both sharing an intricate network of tubes carrying blood like roller coaster carriages around a loop-the-loop track. Machines droned dispassionately; electronic beeps musically sang an infernal ditty as white coated medical staff busied themselves with a constant tango taking them across the room’s sterile floor. The room hummed with life, cold, clinical life.
Ben’s eyes began to focus, the sedative wearing off slowly. His vision became gradually sharper. Supine, he could only look directly up. In place of tiles, an enormous mirror covered the ceiling above him. He struggled to bring the hazy image into focus. He was naked. The man next to him was naked. They were stitched together at the chest.