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Thursday, 10 October 2013

4 Reasons Google's Calico Won't "Solve Death"

The on-line world has been taken ablaze by Calico's bid to end ageing, and thus death itself, but is this what they will actually focus on, and will they achieve it?

The fact is ageing will be reversed, and death by "natural causes" will go with it. The questions are "When?" and "By whom?".

Until recently, not a lot was known about the approach Calico would take in this venture dubbed "moonshot thinking" - a term touted by Google as the source of all considerable human progress throughout history. This we don't doubt, but is this what Calico is all about?

CNN's Dan Primack has revealed details about Calico's plan, which hint at a less-than-moonshot thinking approach, and cast a serious question mark on its ability to deliver the punchy TIME headline. Here is why:

1. The man with the idea, Bill Maris, arrived at the conclusion that the root of all death-causing disease is simply ageing itself. Not only is this widely known in the anti-ageing community (yup, there is one!), but it's something that's been pointed out by Dr Aubrey De Grey time and again.

The difference? Maris stated that the root cause of the root cause is cells failing mainly due to genetic degradation, whereas Dr De Grey's comprehensive classification of ageing damage reveals a considerable number which aren't purely genetic, and hence cannot be addressed by simple genetic therapy. Cell loss and atrophy, extracellular and intracellular debris and crosslinks all play a central role in ageing - think wrinkles and lost mobility alongside the true killers such as heart failure.

2. Calico's starting point according to Maris himself would be analysing the DNA of "healthy" 90-year old people, looking for common patterns which the rest - "unhealthy" 90-year old people don't have.

The problems? Firstly, there is no such thing as a healthy old person, in the true sense of the word. They all have a number of symptoms young people don't. These are either cosmetic, or silent physiological ones which, make no mistake, are present - they just haven't reached the threshold necessary for death.

Secondly, all these so-called healthy old people do indeed end up in the coffin. So all this cumulative damage to their bodies has been taking place just as it has for their fellow unhealthy 90-year old people. They just happened to have a higher threshold for bearing that damage.

Thirdly, and most crucially, being able to withstand the damage caused by ageing is not the same as reversing ageing. Reversing ageing is the true solution, and the only one that will lead to "solving death".

3. Calico's brain parent, Bill Maris, agrees that the current approach to age-related disease is unsuitable. The current approach involves prolonging the lives of hopelessly ill patients. It involves prolonging misery rather than improving health and longevity at the same time.

So why is it then, that Calico's approach involves mimicking a damage-withstanding genetic predisposition and making it accessible to everyone else, when this therapy does not address ageing itself? This merely delays age-related disease, or ensures a painless death at best. That death is no less likely to come than it was before. Indeed, ageing would not have been addressed in the slightest.

4. The head of Calico, Art Levinson, is also a chairman at Genentech. In case you didn't know, which you probably didn't, Genentech is the world's foremost biotechnology company whose profits are derived from a portfolio of drugs used worldwide to manage a range of age-related diseases such as diabetes (insulin), heart failure (TNKase) and Alzheimer's disease (in the making).

All cynicism aside, it can be expected that the likely outcome of any operation overseen by someone who's spent the better part of their life surrounded by the old medical approach to age-related disease is likely to be closer to the original, rather than further away.

So will this "moonshot thinking" venture end up at the polar opposite of its promise, and instead of taking off like a Concorde, just huddle along the well-trodden highways Google would've liked to build in a lawless city?


  1. Hater is gonna hate. So you fully understand the Calico approach? Or are you just sniping a few quotes? Is Calico a threat to someone or something that you feel loyalty towards?

    1. Not in the utmost slightest. I was hoping Calico would be the almighty answer long awaited, and it seemed like something anyone into anti-ageing would jump at as an opportunity to make a real difference. I was also hoping that it would add to the SENS Research Foundation mission by incorporating high tech directly from Google into the therapeutic approach (think mind uploading, think cyborgs, think think think), instead of taking away from it to the point where it seems, as argued above, nowhere near the "solving death" threshold. All the points discussed are facts, and I wish they weren't the case, but they are. Of course I don't fully understand the Calico approach - but the problem is that Calico itself doesn't.

    2. Also - the irony - you suggesting I feel threatened by Calico due to my loyalty. Remember Calico and SRF share a common goal. The same can't be said of Calico and Genentech, yet you're not questioning his loyalty despite his senior positions in both companies.

    3. Let me tell you the reality and where we are at in the genetic anti ageing field.
      The answer, which de Grey and Maris fail to grasp, is in telomerase therapy. This therapy is well advanced with prominent scientists and Doctors at the helm.
      What the conversation should be is: What are ramifications on Society.

    4. With the risk of sounding simplistic, no one ever worried about our life expectancy tripling before it did, and we seem to be doing just fine. If age-linked issues have arisen, they were caused by having increasing numbers of ill people living longer rather than curing any disease.

  2. I have to point out, Calico, although well informed, will still probably have a fluid, dynamic approach to these things - If they see that something is being done better in one place, then they'll adapt, this is a big deal, having a brand as respected as Google in on the race, whilst genetics alone are 'unlikely' to be able to solve death alone, I think its good to have someone working on that field with enough money and resources to advance things. As a fellow member of SENS -albeit only the academic Initiative, I can see why this new giant might annoy, but I hope we can learn from each other.

  3. Here's the shimmy, Within 5 years telomerase therapy will be rolled out (whether FDA approved or not).
    This will bring the elderly back to a non-retirement age.
    It will extend the lifespan out to 120-130years.
    And within that extension "cellular immortality" will be the norm.
    You can see more at:

    1. Shaun: while telomere maintenance is a known factor for cell immortality, one reason telomerase activity exists is to destroy the cells that are misbehaving (gene mutations, etc). While I agree inducing cell death by inhibiting telomerase activity can participate to the control of tumor proliferation, stabilizing telomeres in an attempt to induced "immortality" will for sure lead to increase incidence of abnormal cell clones, eg cancer. There is unfortunately no magic bullet, and targeting telomeres is not the sole answer, to aging or cancer.

  4. Calico reeks of mortality; just as Lear's hand does for a while in IV.6. People'll soon find dying ethical, & that's just about as foul and distasteful as it all could get, I wis.

  5. Maybe the issue is to have more input as to when and how to pass from this life to another, not just prolonging life in the here and now.

  6. Funny you are making those assumptions about Calico's goals. I simply see this as what it is: trying to improve the quality of life of elders, and in doing so giving them more quality-years of life. Nobody said it was about finding a "sérum de jouvence". Get real people. And if you don't believe in progress through provocative science, just ask yourself how we (the medical community) went from 0% survival 20 years ago to almost 90% today in children with leukemia. I actually talked today to a recent recruit at Calico and I can assure you they are dam serious about getting things done the way Genentech and other have been successful at: Go. Fight. Win.