Exciting Times: Google to Back Longevity Science

It was only a matter of time before more big players started to dip their toes into funding longevity science. The bigger the player, the more important the very existence of their position of support becomes: much of the struggle to raise funding and public support for the goal of extending the healthy human life span involves generating credibility and legitimacy in the public eye. It's unfair, and completely disconnected from merit and utility, but that's the way things work. Greater support for longevity science from the California venture and technology community has been building for some years: it is no accident that the SENS Research Foundation has its base in the Bay Area, for example. That choice is not just a matter of several of the most noted aging research laboratories being nearby, with another in LA, but also that a strong base of funding and grassroots support exists in that part of the world.

It is pleasing to see that the folk running Google have decided to direct some of their philanthropic muscle towards the problem of aging, not least because they have access to one of the largest soapboxes in this modern world of ours. That Google openly backs longevity science is a tremendous boon for everyone who advocates for greater research funding in this field, and for everyone seeking to raise funding in this field.

Announcement by Larry Page

I'm excited to announce Calico, a new company that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases. Art Levinson, Chairman and former CEO of Genentech and Chairman of Apple, will be Chief Executive Officer. Art and I are excited about tackling aging and illness. These issues affect us all - from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families. And while this is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people.

Google vs. Death

At the moment Google is preparing an especially uncertain and distant shot. It is planning to launch Calico, a new company that will focus on health and aging in particular. The independent firm will be run by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of biotech pioneer Genentech, who will also be an investor. Levinson, who began his career as a scientist and has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, plans to remain in his current roles as the chairman of the board of directors for both Genentech and Apple, a position he took over after its co-founder Steve Jobs died in 2011. In other words, the company behind YouTube and Google+ is gearing up to seriously attempt to extend human lifespan.

Google isn't exactly bursting with credibility in this arena. Its personal-medical-record service, Google Health, failed to catch on. But Calico, the company says, is different. It will be making longer-term bets than most health care companies do. "In some industries," says Page, "it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done."

Aubrey de Grey: Finally, the War on Aging Has Truly Begun

To paraphrase Churchill's words following the Second Battle of El Alamein: Google's announcement about their new venture to extend human life, Calico, is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

As little as 20 years ago, when I joined the pitifully small band of academics who call themselves biogerontologists, the prospects for defeating aging were so bleak that it was widely considered unscientific even to discuss it: according to the respectable view, our only option was to continue discovering more about the nature of aging until, by some miracle in the distant future, our body of knowledge took sufficient shape to reveal a route to intervention. A string of advances in the late 1990s, mostly made by researchers not focused on aging per se, changed that: it allowed, for the first time, the formulation of a realistic divide-and-conquer strategy against mankind's most formidable foe. Many components of this strategy were at a dauntingly early stage of development, but all could be described in sufficient detail to offer hope for foreseeable success. As so often in science, many established luminaries voiced skepticism, and some still do; but the plan progressively attracted the support of world-leading experts in all the relevant disciplines, and as it has done so, funding - albeit far too little to maximise the rate of progress - has materialized too.

Now is the right time for a commercial entity to get heavily involved. One of the key activities of SENS Research Foundation, as a non-profit, is proof-of-concept research on key components of the anti-aging arsenal that are still too early-stage to constitute an attractive business proposition for all but the most visionary investors. But we've always made clear that our ultimate goal is to kick-start a real anti-aging industry: not the essentially cosmetic industry that goes by that name today, but a bona fide rejuvenation biotechnology industry, providing people with truly comprehensive restoration and preservation of youthful mental and physical function however long they live. And yes, one side-effect of this advance - a side-effect that we should all celebrate - is that most people will live a great deal longer than today, and will do so in the prime of health.

With Google's decision to direct its astronomical resources to a concerted assault on aging, that battle may have been transcended: once financial limitations are removed, curmudgeons no longer matter. That's why I think it is no exaggeration to state that the end of the beginning may have arrived. I won't go so far as to say that my crusading job is done, but for sure it just got a whole lot easier.

One example of the sort of groundswell of support for longevity science in the California technology culture I'm talking about can be seen in the Hacker News thread on this announcement by Google. Hacker News is a slice of the technology entrepreneur community with an emphasis on the Bay Area startup scene. People commenting there immediately made the connection with the work of the SENS Research Foundation and Aubrey de Grey, despite that not being mentioned anywhere in the press materials. There is a web of connections between entrepreneurs-turned-investor such as Peter Thiel, the SENS Research Foundation, researchers in California laboratories, and a range of people in the technology and venture capital communities, and that network has been growing quietly in the background for years now. Health Extension is one small example of the sort of organized efforts that arise from that community.

Aging is a terrible thing, and parts of the research community have for some years been able to show that there are real prospects for creating rejuvenation therapies. Sooner or later people with a great deal more money than they could ever manage to spend on luxuries are going to wake up and realize that they can buy more years, decades even, of healthy life by funding longevity research. Obviously if you are rich and you can do that, it would be foolish not to. What do you have to lose?

But let us not get too far ahead of ourselves. This effort by Google has just started, and we have no idea how it will turn out. Google doesn't have a good track record for going above and beyond the safe, staid norm when it comes to philanthropy. Their initiatives in that respect have generally been very mainstream, very similar to what other factions of Big Philanthropy are up to, and very unlikely to change the world. So it is entirely possible that this could turn out to be another version of the Ellison Medical Foundation, wherein funding follows the National Institute on Aging model, and is thus highly conservative, largely focused on investigation rather than intervention, and very unlikely to produce any meaningful extension of healthy life. That would be a grand waste of an opportunity, but it's a plausible outcome.

Another possibility is that the outcome here will look very much like the Glenn Foundation initiatives that have established laboratories for longevity science around the country. Most of those funds and the resulting work presently goes towards the slow, ineffective path to extending human life: manipulating metabolism, searching for ways to replicate the benefits of calorie restriction, and so forth. Slightly slowing aging isn't rejuvenation, it's arguably harder than creating rejuvenation, and it won't make any great different to the life span of anyone in middle age today. What use are medicines that can slightly slow aging if you are already old when they emerge? This, too, would be a waste of an opportunity, but is a plausible prediction.

On balance, I will be pleasantly surprised if money flows from Google towards SENS research and similar work on human rejuvenation any time soon: I don't expect that to happen now. I expect Google to back the mainstream, and the mainstream today is not SENS, but rather the slow, painful, expensive attempt to build drugs that slightly slow aging. That said, I will also be surprised if significant money fails to flow from Google to SENS by 2018 or so, as the trajectory for SENS is for it to become a major faction within the aging research community. I expect that trajectory to accelerate as attempts to slow aging via drugs continue to produce poor or no results, and as incremental progress accrues in the foundation technologies needed for rejuvenation: mitochondrial replacement; cleaning up the lysosome; immunotherapies to clear amyloid; and so forth. Sooner or later, people start backing the winning horse, even if it takes them time to recognize that said horse is obviously, self-evidently better than the alternatives.

Comments

Ah, here's a no brainer. Ray Kurzeil is a very strong advocate of longevity thus taking a gizzion pills per day, and including IV's every week to slow down his aging. And, he written those books, "How to live long enough to live forever" the brain book most recently and Singularity in between. Oh, and he recently started working for Google.

If anyone is in a position to sway the Google boys, it should be him.

Posted by: Robert Church at September 18th, 2013 10:41 PM

Another important aspect to Google getting involved in the anti-aging battle is political.

Simply put, a non-profit like SENS was never going to be in a position to influence policy-makers to change the regulatory structure of the FDA to make anti-aging therapies commercially viable.

But, Google is in such a position. Or at least, it's in a better position than almost any other organization out there. If Silicon Valley campaigns to make anti-aging medicine possible under federal regulations, then the work of SENS won't be in vain.

Posted by: Therapsid at September 18th, 2013 10:59 PM

Which federal regulations are you thinking of, therapsid? It's common knowledge the FDA is slow and blocks progress because it is risk adverse, but does it outlaw ageing treatments? If it is just a board of FDA directors that decide which treatment gets used by the public, then what law supports this view?

I don't mean to ask in a belligerent tone, but a skeptical one. I cannot find any such law, but maybe I haven't looked hard enough.

Posted by: Matthew at September 19th, 2013 12:33 AM

Hi Matthew,

Here's one link which helps answer your question.

https://www.fightaging.org/archives/2010/03/the-roadblock-that-is-the-fda.php

Basically, the FDA is designed to approve drugs which pass clinical trials to treat specific diseases. It's really not set up to approve multifaceted SENS-style engineering to fix the damage of aging as it occurs in normal, seemingly healthy adults.

Do a search for FDA and anti-aging in this website's archives and you'll find plenty on this issue. The FDA already highly restricts experimental stem cell therapies.

Posted by: Therapsid at September 19th, 2013 6:44 AM

Wow! This was very exciting news.

Does anyone know anything about what Google CaLiCo (California Life Company) is actually going to be doing? They have been incredibly vague. I'm hoping it's a billion-dollar commercial version of the SENS Foundation, but I can't tell if that's where their awareness is at or not.

The new CEO's page on Google+ is here:
https://plus.google.com/108880830087528406119/posts

It might be worth nagging him about SENS.

Posted by: Carl at September 19th, 2013 7:27 AM

I would be willing to bet that the people at Google who are driving this actually read this very blog. It is the most relentless and interesting of sites dedicated to the subject. I hope the "moonshot" metaphor that was made in the press release reflects an aggressive and daring approach to their research, rather than waiting until 2018 to first fail before turning to SENS. If Google were to put some of their eggs in the SENS basket, then we are truly fortunate. If they plan on spending five years wasting time, then that is five years gone for people who are going to miss out on the technologies that might have saved them. I wonder if Ray Kurzweil's presence had some synergy with his employers. He is not among the conservative on rejuvenation. We shall see.

Posted by: Jersey Jones at September 19th, 2013 8:14 AM

Certainly a positive development.

Posted by: Ian at September 19th, 2013 7:25 PM

Thumbs up!

Posted by: Donald at September 19th, 2013 8:19 PM

all hail the end of the beginning!

Posted by: JohnD at September 19th, 2013 9:08 PM

Sorry for not getting back on here soon enough, Therapsid.

I know this website supports the viewpoint you mentioned. But the link doesn't point to any laws. It's rather curious how this works, methinks.

The forbes article simply demonstrates the FDA is risk-adverse. They won't allow treatments until they are proven more likely to help rather than harm given what is at stake (irony here, oh such irony).

In other words, they don't support an engineering approach until the science is in, and it won't be in for a very long time. Certainly not in the next 20 years - or 40 - or maybe not even 50 or 60. So they will delay progress so that a few hundred million americans die. Ok, but that is only on the assumption that the treatment works already.

Posted by: Matthew at September 20th, 2013 9:14 PM

About time longevity research gets some funding.
Pitty its coming from the kinds of folks that have a tenancy to suppress technology.

Posted by: somerandom at January 14th, 2014 8:39 AM

I hate to share Reason's pessimism about the next four years, but I too expect google to follow the standard approach of trying to create drugs to manipulate metabolism and slightly slow aging.

I am more pessimistic, as I don't then expect google to realize the (possible) error of their ways and start supporting SENS research. I think they will quietly exit the field.

My reason for thinking this? Well about a decade ago they tried to 'solve' climate change, and invested in the then trendy technologies of solar and wind, despite many people predicting that these were a slow road to nowhere due to indeterminacy, needing to be spread over vast geographical areas, and not being able to work everywhere.

If they were really bold about solving climate change they might have backed nuclear such as Kirk Sorenson's proposed molten salt reactors, or perhaps would have invested in engineered geothermal power. But they choose the trendy conservative research path. And then back out of the area several years later.

Even google doesn't have infinite cash and if burned will drop something altogether.

Posted by: Jim at January 18th, 2014 3:19 AM

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