It will not be news to this audience that the California Life Company, or Calico for short, Google's venture into aging research, is secretive. Outside of the staff, few people can do more than read the tea leaves regarding what exactly they are up to. The high level summary is that Google is channeling a large amount of funding into some sort of long-term development plan for therapeutics to treat aging as a medical condition. Over the past few years Calico has made sizable development deals with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and hired some of the most noteworthy names in the aging research community. It is usual for biotechnology and drug development companies to be fairly secretive in their early stages, for reasons that largely relate to investment regulations. At some point they have to talk about what they are doing, however, given that the goal is clinical trials, customers, and revenue.
In 2013, Time magazine ran a cover story titled Google vs. Death about Calico, a then-new Google-run health venture focused on understanding aging - and how to beat it. "We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done," Google CEO Larry Page told Time. But how exactly would Calico help humans live longer, healthier lives? How would it invest its vast $1.5 billion pool of money? Beyond sharing the company's ambitious mission - to better understand the biology of aging and treat aging as a disease - Page was vague. I recently started poking around in Silicon Valley and talking to researchers who study aging and mortality, and discovered that four years after its launch, we still don't know what Calico is doing.
I asked everyone I could about Calico and what it's up to - and quickly learned that it's an impenetrable fortress. Among the little more than a dozen press releases Calico has put out, there were only broad descriptions of collaborations with outside labs and pharmaceutical companies - most of them focused on that overwhelmingly vague mission of researching aging and associated diseases. The media contacts there didn't so much as respond to multiple requests for interviews. People who work at Calico, Calico's outside collaborators, and even folks who were no longer with the company, stonewalled me. There were no clinical trials or patents filed publicly under the Calico brand that I could find and only a few aging-related scientific papers.
It may be the case that Calico is simply following the standard biotechnology startup game plan over a longer time frame and with more funding than is usually the case, including the secrecy portion of that plan, but by now most of those interested in faster progress and beneficial upheaval in the research community have written off Calico as a venture unlikely to make any meaningful difference. Given who has been hired to lead it, and given the deals made, the most likely scenario is that Calico is the second coming of the Ellison Medical Foundation. By that I mean an organization that is essentially running more of the same research funded at the National Institute on Aging, with a poor or absent focus on clinical translation, and constrained in goals to the paradigm of drug development to slightly slow the progression of aging. In this area you will find things like calorie restriction mimetics, pharmaceutical enhancement of autophagy, and so forth. The past twenty years of research have made it clear that it is very hard and very expensive to produce even marginally effective and reliable drugs capable of slowing aging. Yet this is exactly what most research groups continue to try.
There is an alternative approach. Instead of altering the poorly understood intersection between metabolism and aging in an attempt to slow the damage of aging, instead periodically repair the quite well cataloged list of fundamental cell and tissue damage that causes aging. This approach is exemplified by senescent cell clearance - a way to extend healthy life and turn back symptoms of aging and age-related disease that is already showing itself more robust and useful than any of the present drug candidates aimed at altering the operation of metabolism to slow aging. Senescent cell clearance as a way to reverse aging has been pushed by the SENS rejuvenation research advocates for more than 15 years, with good evidence as support. Yet over that span of time the majority of the research community rejected damage repair in favor of focusing on efforts to slow aging, efforts that have not succeeded in producing useful therapeutics with sizable results on human health.
That rejection was clearly not sound. Once efforts started in earnest on development of methods of senescent cell clearance, it required only the past few years to robustly demonstrate its effectiveness as a rejuvenation therapy. It is gathering ever more attention now - but not from Calico, so far as we know, and not from the majority of the research community that continues to work on slowing aging through adjustment of metabolism, an approach to aging as a medical condition that is demonstrably marginal and expensive. The funding used to bring senescent cell clearance up to its present point of proven success is a tiny fraction of what has been spent on so far futile efforts to produce calorie restriction mimetic drugs that would, even if realized, be far less effective and far less useful to patients. On the whole I think Calico is most likely a larger than usual example of the primary problem in aging research: the dominance of initiatives that put their funds towards complex, lengthy, and uncertain projects that even in the best of circumstances are only capable of producing poor outcomes for patients. In short, the problem is an unwillingness to pursue the repair and rejuvenation approach that is demonstrably more effective than the adjusting metabolism to slow aging approach. Excessive secrecy is a minor quibble in comparison.