Michael Fossel

Year of Graduation: 
Michael Fossel

"You can do things that people think you cannot do. ... But you can’t do them by simply beating your head against a wall; you need to go find a door."

On May 13, Michael Fossel ’69, an expert on cell aging, was the first guest assembly speaker of Exeter’s virtual spring term.

Fossel holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Wesleyan University, a doctorate in neurobiology from Stanford University and an M.D. from Stanford Medical School. His 2015 book, The Telomerase Revolution: The Enzyme That Holds the Key to Human Aging and Will Lead to Longer, Healthier Lives, was named one of the year’s “Best Books for Science Lovers” by the Wall Street Journal.

In 2015, Fossel founded Telocyte, a biotech company with a focus on curing Alzheimer’s disease. Starting next year, Telocyte will be running first-in-human FDA trials to reverse Alzheimer’s at the cellular level.

We caught up with Fossel via Zoom to glean a bit of pre-Assembly insight.

Working the system

“At Stanford, I studied the development of the nervous system — how the synapses form, how the brain forms — and it just left me with my jaw on the ground. It’s so impressive. But when you talk about the other end of life, when the nervous system comes apart, people tend to say, “Well, it just happens. People age, things fall apart. What do you expect?” I think that’s an awfully blasé attitude. Usually, when people get very blasé about something it means that they’re being intellectually lazy, and they’re not even trying to understand things. And I think that’s true of how we look at aging.”

Science-based optimism

“What frustrated me was the scientific literature at the time — it seemed like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. In the ’70s there were a lot of promising leads about what aging was and what you could do with it, but there was no cohesive picture: you could see the head and the tail and the ear, but where was the elephant? I wanted to get involved in age-related research, but it wasn’t until the ’90s that I ran into some of the early data around telomeres, structures which act as an aging clock in each one of our cells. That’s when I finally began to see the bones of the complete elephant. Then I got invited by one of the first biotech companies to fly out to California and see their confidential information, and after that I wrote my 1996 book, Reversing Human Aging.”

Conceptual revolution

“In the last century, we were concerned that the cost of health care due to polio would skyrocket because of iron lungs, rehabilitation, braces — it would bankrupt the U.S. and Canada before the end of the century. But that didn’t happen because of the polio vaccination. I think that the same thing is about to happen regarding aging. There are concerns that care of Alzheimer’s is going to bankrupt us, but I say, no, not if we understand the process. It’s a conceptual revolution. I think that’s what’s going on.”

Do the impossible; do it well

“A lot of things that people think are impossible are not. One of my favorite quotes is from Coco Chanel: ‘Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door.’ I think a lot of times you can do things that people think you cannot do — look at our achievements with smallpox, flying, quantum mechanics. But you can’t do them by simply beating your head against a wall; you need to go find a door. People spend too much time beating their heads against a wall when they should just go and find a door.”

It's our world; we live in it

“People have said to me, ‘If you extend the life span, you increase the population and place that burden on the planet. Is this really a good idea?’ There are two worlds we can have: we could have one world where we don’t treat the elderly. You just let them die, but you cull the population. Or you can have another world where you reverse-age, prevent, and cure age-related disease. That world is more complicated, with a higher population, but it encompasses compassion; the first world does not. Which world would you rather live in? I’ll take the second world not because I want the population to go up, but because I wouldn’t want to live in a world where we have no compassion for the elderly. It’s very easy to have compassion for the young; many people lack that same compassion for the elderly.”

Early opportunities

“Exeter let me do things that I could never have done elsewhere. I was able to learn lost-wax casting even though I wasn’t taking a sculpture course. I had a course in anthropology that I might have not had elsewhere, and I ended up in an advanced course in set theory and one on particle physics where we were dealing basically with quantum mechanics. Where else would you get to do these things? And I was busy writing poetry. The opportunities at Exeter are enormous: the opportunities to open your mind and try different things are just without comparison. That’s what really sticks with me is that opportunity, the availability of opportunity.”

A brave new (virtual) world

“I’m delighted to pioneer the virtual assembly this term! Technology was always part of my history. I was at Stanford when the first word processors were coming out and some of the secretaries at the school didn’t know how to use them. I said, ‘I will teach you how to use them if you let me use them after 5 o’clock so that I can type my Ph.D. thesis.’ When the time came, I took my thesis and biked across campus to submit it, and the guy there measured my margins and said, ‘I’m so sorry. The right margin is an eighth-of-an inch off. You’ll have to retype the whole thing.’ And I just said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be back in 20 minutes.’ I enjoy technology and the wonderful things we can do with it. I understand the students don’t want just some rah-rah lecture, they’d like to have some science. Which is good, because they’re going to get hit with it.”

Watch Michael's assembly

— Daneet Steffens '82