One afternoon in the early 1980s, Suren Sehgal brought a strange package home from work and stashed it in his family’s freezer. Wedged beside the ice cream, it was wrapped in heavy plastic and marked, “DON’T EAT!” Inside were several small glass vials containing a white paste—all that remained of a rare bacterium that today is the foundation of the most promising anti-aging drug in decades. Sehgal had been studying it since 1972, when he’d first isolated it in a soil sample at Ayerst Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company in Montreal.
A Canadian medical expedition had collected the soil from beneath one of the mysterious stone heads on Easter Island, a speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In the dirt, Sehgal had discovered Streptomyces hygroscopicus, a bacterium that secreted a potent antifungal compound. This intrigued him; he thought perhaps it could be made into a cream for athlete’s foot or other fungal conditions. He purified the stuff and named it rapamycin, after Easter Island’s native name, Rapa Nui.
It soon proved its potential. When a neighbor’s wife developed a stubborn fungal skin condition, Sehgal mixed up a rapamycin ointment for her. “It was probably illegal,” says his son Ajai Sehgal, but the infection cleared up quickly. Suren, a biochemist who’d immigrated to Canada from a tiny village in what’s now Pakistan, became convinced that he’d stumbled upon something special. Before he could develop it any further, however, Ayerst abruptly closed its Montreal lab, and his bosses ordered all “nonviable” compounds destroyed—including the rapamycin. Sehgal couldn’t bring himself to do it and instead squirreled a few vials of Streptomyces hygroscopicus into his freezer at home. Most of the staff was fired, but Sehgal was transferred to the company’s lab in Princeton, N.J. The plastic package made the move packed in dry ice.
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About the Author: Bill Gifford, Bloomberg News