I'm definitely not going to run up a quick post every time that a journalist thinks he or she has something new to say about Calico, Google's recently announced and only just underway initiative aimed at pushing forward the bounds of longevity science and extending human life. If I did that it would be Calico day and and day out until Google finally revealed the details of their research and funding agenda - which, frankly, I can't imagine is more than a long internal white paper at this point, and subject to change. But I'll indulge just this once, since it's been a couple of weeks, long enough for someone in the profession to actually have done some legwork and come up with something that we outsiders don't yet know.
Calico is considered the brainchild of Bill Maris, the Google Ventures managing partner who once was a biotech portfolio manager at Investor AB. Sources says that Maris looked at the life sciences landscape, and saw hundreds of companies all focused on curing or minimizing various diseases and conditions. In all cases, the goal was either to prolong life and/or improve the quality of life. What didn't exist, however, were companies focusing on the root cause of so much of this disease and death. Namely, that we all keep getting older. Or, put another way, that our bodies begin to fail on a cellular level - largely due to degradation of our genetic materials.
Now that the entire genome had been coded, Maris wondered if it was possible to actually study the genetic causes of aging and then create drugs to address them (a question that was heavily influenced by talks with futurist and Googler Ray Kurzweil). For example, what if you examined the genomes of thousands of healthy 90 year-olds from all parts of the world? What genetic similarities do they have? Or, perhaps, what happens to most of us that didn't happen to them. Even if this didn't result in longer life, it perhaps could at least lead to an improved quality of life for folks on the back nine.
One of those Maris called on was Google co-founder and director of special projects Sergey Brin, who expressed interest in investing. But as conversations progressed between Brin, Maris and Google CEO Larry Page, a consensus began to form that the best course of action would be to fund the entire project off of Google's balance sheet (the board would later agree). I have heard various numbers as to the exact Google commitment, but for now can only really say that we're talking about a minimum of hundreds of millions (tranched out, of course). The company itself still isn't commenting, although it's possible that there will be some specifics in its next quarterly earnings report (due next week).
You might recall that Maris made some interesting comments on the direction of Google Ventures late last year.
Maris said some of the areas he is interested in include businesses that are focused on radical life extension, cryogenics and nanotechnology.
At present some observers are joining the perhaps-too-obvious dots to suggest that Calico will fund programs focused on the data side of medical research, as Google is a Big Data company. If so, then I wouldn't expect Calico to directly contribute much to the bottom line of (a) the number of years of healthy life gained by you and I, and (b) just how long it takes to develop and deploy longevity-enhancing therapies. The obvious places to start with data are genetic studies of longevity or comparative studies of biology between long-lived and short-lived people and species - and that's all a sideshow, really, far removed from research programs capable of producing human rejuvenation.
According to insiders familiar with Calico's formation, Maris was inspired by the work of the Human Genome Project, which had coded the entire DNA sequence. The combination of that, and an understanding of how Big Data crunching could be implemented, led to suggestions that Calico could compare the genome of healthy older people - such as those who had made it to their 90s without encountering any significant health issues - and see how, in aggregate, they differed from others.
Really this is all just more reading of tea leaves. It is very good that large sums of money are sliding towards longevity science: the avalanche that began ten years ago with a few advocates and small foundations has started in earnest. But it should be expected that Google will probably follow the present mainstream distribution of funding for longevity science, which is to say that most of it will go towards things like calorie restriction mimetic development, or the next drug candidate after rapamycin thought to slightly slow aging, or the study of centenarian genomes, and so on. None of these are paths to human rejuvenation, and only some of them are even slow, hard paths to slightly extending healthy human life.
So the arrival large-scale funding doesn't bypass the need to ensure that rejuvenation research (such as SENS, the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) dethrones slowing aging (such as rapamycin development) as the dominant strategy for the aging research community. That process is underway, and many noted researchers are SENS supporters, but it has a long way to go yet.
I don't spend my time advocating for the development of SENS-style repair therapies, ways to reverse the known root causes of degenerative aging, because I'm some kind of longevity science counter-culture hipster, supporting the minority view in the field because it's the minority view in the field. I advocate repair-based research aimed at reversal of aging because, based on my decade of reading research and observing the biotechnology community, I'm convinced that it's the only plausible and cost-effective way to produce large gains in healthy life span soon enough to matter to those of us in middle age today.
At this point any high-level strategy for longevity science will lead to some form of first generation therapies twenty years or so from now. If the present mainstream focus on drug development and gently slowing aging by metabolic manipulation continues to be the dominant approach, then the therapies of the 2030s will be weak medicine, and will do little for those of us who by then have become old, aging and dying on much the same schedule as our parents. What use is slowing the damage of aging when you are already old and damaged? But equally over those twenty years the research community could instead choose to work on repairing the root causes of aging - choose to produce rejuvenation therapies that reverse age-related frailty and effectively treat age-related disease, resulting in large gains in healthy life span even for people who are already old.
This is the most important debate in medical research today, as the outcome will determine whether we die as did our parents, or whether we have the opportunity to live in good health for centuries. Yet the broader public are oblivious to it.