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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?