As soon as I read Time Magazine's recent article about Google's newest business venture: Calico, I knew I had to write a post about it. In case you missed it, the world famous company behind everyone's favorite search engine is launching Calico in order to find novel ways to extend human life span (which currently sits at roughly 78.6 years in the United States).
This may sound morbid, but ever since college I have been interested in the science of death and dying. Senior year I even did an literature review with a professor about aging processes. I also took two classes about various theories of the afterlife, and Mary Roach's book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, is one of my favorites. Obviously, speculating about Calico's possible future directions is pretty fun for me, and if they want to offer me a job that would be pretty great too.
Who is Involved?
Larry Page - the co-founder of Google, and one of the richest men in the world. He suffers from paralysis of both vocal cords, and subsequently has invested $20 million into researching vocal cord nerve function. Mr. Page seems to be deeply interested in "moonshot" type breakthroughs (see Google Glass and self-driving cars).
Sergey Brin - another co-founder of Google. Sergey is married to Anne Wojcicki, the founder of 23andMe, a company that provides personalized, rapid genomic testing (and a product I would love to try out). Sergey's mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system, and has invested heavily in researching this illness.
Dr. Arthur Levinson - the appointed CEO of Calico. Dr. Levinson has his PhD in Biochemistry from Princeton. Interestingly, he replaced Steve Jobs as chairman of the board of Apple and is also the chairman for the biotech company Genentech.
I think it is important to look at what interests and pertinent history each of these individuals has to speculate about the future of Calico. All of the men spearheading this new venture have shown a willingness to combine cash and technology with medical research, especially when a disease personally effects them.
Google's mission statement is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." 23andMe is all about providing affordable, personalized genomic information to clients. Finally, Genentech has recently been focusing on novel cancer and Alzheimer's therapeutics. Calico might be a melting pot of all of these things.
What's In a Name?
Calico is short for California Life Company, and will actually be completely independent of the gigantic Google. On a bit of a tangent, so called "calico cats" present an interesting case study in genetics, X-inactivation, and Barr bodies (a popular medical school topic and worth reading about). To me, this just suggests more evidence that Dr. Levinson will push a lot of his chips into the genetic component of aging.
My Top 5 Calico Predictions
1. Harry McCracken and Lev Grossman's article in Time probably gives the best hint about Calico's first future directions:
"Medicine is well on its way to becoming an information science: doctors and researchers are now able to harvest and mine massive quantities of data from patients. And Google is very, very good with large data sets...expect [Calico] to use its core data-handling skills to shed new light on familiar age related maladies"
2. Pharmacogenetics refers to the genetic differences between patients that can affect an individual's response to drugs. As the website TechCrunch reports: "One source close to the project says that Google is exploring solutions in the area of genetically personalized medicine. Tailoring drug treatments to the unique biomarkers of the individual." I can imagine a not so distant world where everyone's genome is mapped and different medicines/dosages/supplements are given for maximal effect and prevention on an individual basis. This prediction springboards off of the data crunching power of Google combined with a bit of 23andMe.
3. Telomeres are essentially repetitive sequences at the end of chromosomes that prevent the degradation of genes. Each time a cell divides, some of this "protective cap" is eaten away. Theoretically, if there was a way to prevent the degradation of these telomeres cells, we could have healthier, longer lasting cells in our body. No one has found a way to do this yet, but why not Calico?
4. If Calico's goal really is to increase the human life span, they could think slightly simpler. The single greatest reason for increases in human health and longevity has been basic sanitary measures. Calico could develop novel ways of providing clean water or disposing of waste efficiently to needy countries. It could research materials that combat bacteria in hospital settings. Developing a new generation of antibiotics is also a necessary step if humans want to stay on this planet longer.
5. My last prediction is self-promoting. My independent study entitled the "Chemistry of Aging" led me down a literature review about caloric restriction, oxidative stress, and the various cellular signaling molecules involved in these processes. It was fascinating stuff, and seemed to have a lot of potential for manipulation. An article at CNNMoney by Dan Primack seemed to agree with me:
"I'd say that Art's background in biotech and gene-driven cancer therapies would mean he'd be likely focusing on identifying the molecular aspects/drivers/signals of cellular aging and looking at interventional therapies targeting those targets. If true, this would be similar to how the oncology field was in the 1980s (wide open, no strategy, no leader, shunned by "real" scientists and most investors)."
Why Is This Important?
First and foremost, don't plan a trip to China for 2140. Unfortunately, scientific discoveries take a long time to develop. With Calico, there is so much still up in the air, and Larry Page has urged caution:
"In some industries it takes 10 to 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"
However, I think Calico can legitimize anti-aging science akin to what Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson have done in revolutionizing rocket design, space travel, and the privatization of these industries. Before SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, the governmental agency (and vastly underfunded) NASA was the only player in the American exploration of space. What the private sector has added to this field in creativity and funding cannot be overstated. I can only hope that Calico inspires other companies and brilliant scientists to work on and fund this worthwhile field.