TCS Daily

The Immortality Portfolio

By James K. Glassman - September 10, 2001 12:00 AM

I'll give you the good news first. Scientific advances may allow you to live for several decades beyond your current life expectancy. Now for the bad news -- saving enough money for retirement could become a whole lot tougher.

The fear that a retiree might outlive her savings is not exactly new. But what is new is the prospect, driven by America's vibrant biotech industry, that lots of Americans could be living into triple digits. On Aug. 27, the Wall Street Journal described how Harvard scientists, working with two Boston-area hospitals, apparently identified a "longevity gene" in humans - molecular machinery that causes aging.

Does that mean that we can now throw a genetic monkey wrench into this machine and stop the whole process? Too early to tell, but the Journal reports that already researchers have been able to lengthen the life spans of mice and nematode worms by altering genes.

When it comes to human cells, the amazing possibilities have actually been apparent for several years. In January of 1998, Geron Corporation announced that it had added a gene to human cells in vitro that allowed those cells to live well beyond their normal life span. Whereas a normal human cell will die after dividing about 60 times, these cells lived through hundreds of divisions. Geron apparently created "immortal cells," although that doesn't mean that immortal humans are just around the corner. Geron is trying to use the research to target specific diseases related to aging, like macular degeneration -- which causes failing eyesight. The company thinks that telomerase, the enzyme involved in the gene therapy, is just one piece of the aging puzzle.

When you think about the research at places like Geron and Harvard, all of the biotech firms aggressively pursuing treatments for thousands of ailments, and the wealth of knowledge gained from the completion of the human genome map, it's clear that longer lives will be the result. Sounds great, but it does raise tough questions for retirement savers. How much is enough? How long can I reasonably expect to live?

Living a long life is a great blessing for so many reasons, but it does create a financial challenge. So maybe the right idea is to invest in the companies trying to lengthen your life. Think of it as a hedge against the possibility of immortality. If all these ventures fail, then you probably won't get the breakthrough therapy allowing you to outlive your savings. On the other hand, if biotechnology allows you to live past a hundred, then you may be able to pay for your long retirement with the outstanding returns from investing in biotechnology.

O.K., there's a big potential flaw in this strategy. There's no guarantee that the particular companies you invest in, or for that matter any of the biotech companies currently in existence, will actually be the ones that create valuable therapies and reap large profits. So biotechs may tank, but you may end up living longer and needing more money anyway.

Still, a prudent approach should include some investment in biotech, along with many other sectors of the economy. Plus, the possibility of a long retirement - and the need for large investment returns to afford it -- is another great argument for embracing some risk, and that means investing in stocks, not just bonds. If you're looking to profit from advances in our understanding of human genes, the companies mentioned below make good candidates to receive a small portion of your investment dollars.

I offer one important caveat, inspired by the recent political debate over stem cell research. The media focus on federally funded research obscured the fact that there's plenty of privately funded research that would be objectionable to many Americans. So, if you're a person who believes that life begins at conception and that a human soul inhabits every embryo, then you'll probably want to steer clear of many biotech companies on moral grounds. Companies like Geron do research on embryonic stem cells, and many biotech firms will likely be cloning embryos, even though their aim is to create new medicines, not new people.

Among the companies developing interesting potential gene therapies are CuraGen (CRGN), Genzyme (GENZ) and Myriad Genetics (MYGN). Check them out. 

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