Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) is no stranger to big ideas -- over the past few years, it has built a driverless car, bought up wind farms, funded a competition to send a robot to the moon, and attempted to address world hunger and factory farming by growing meat from stem cells. Google is a master of disruption -- it evolved from a search company into a software and hardware one, and even entered the energy market with Google Energy.
Now, the search giant wants to solve the biggest problem of them all -- human aging and death.
Calico hires some major talent
In September, Google entered the health care market by creating Calico (California Life Company), a company focused on aging and related diseases. The new company will be led by Arthur Levinson, the former CEO of Genentech (now part of Roche (OTC:RHHBY)) and chairman of Apple. Levinson will remain on the boards at both Roche and Apple.
Two other big names in the industry, Hal Barron and David Botstein, have also recently been hired by Calico. Barron was previously the executive vice president, head of global product development, and chief medical officer at Roche, and will now become Calico's new president of research and development. Botstein, a Princeton professor who led the university's Lewis-Sigler Institute of Integrative Genomics for a decade, will become Calico's chief scientific officer.
In addition to Barron and Botstein, who both originally worked at Genentech, Calico has also hired Bob Cohen, a former senior oncology fellow at Genentech, and Cynthia Kenyon, a professor at the University of California specializing in genetic mutations capable of extending the human lifespan.
Google has stated that in addition to treating age-related diseases like Alzheimer's, cancer, and heart disease, Calico's ultimate goal will be to extend the average human lifespan by 20 to 100 years. Although Calico's plans might sound more rooted in science fiction than reality, consider this -- over the past century, the average human lifespan has already increased by 20 years.
Succeeding where others have failed
Levinson has stated that Calico will be more of a research institute than a pharmaceutical company -- which makes sense, considering Google won't feel any pressure to produce blockbuster drugs, and it has incredibly deep pockets with $54.7 billion in cash and equivalents. However, Google will only fund the company's operations, not run it.
If Calico actually succeeds in producing a market-approved anti-aging drug, the market is wide open for the taking, since current treatments are mainly being researched by non-profit organizations.
Google isn't the first major company to search for the elusive fountain of youth. In 2008, GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) acquired Sirtris Pharmaceuticals for $720 million for access to the company's research pipeline of sirtuins, a newly discovered class of enzymes that were believed to be involved in the aging process. Glaxo shut down Sirtis earlier this year, although it has continued developing the sirtuin technology. However, progress has been slow -- a few small studies for inflammatory disease and type 2 diabetes have proven inconclusive in terms of safety and efficacy.
Previous methods of life extension
While it's a bit early to guess what Google's approach to life extension will be, we can look back at some previous approaches at extending the human lifespan.
Freezing the body has always been a popular choice for science fiction writers, but the idea is rooted in the real practice of cryonics, in which the body (or just the head) are frozen in liquid nitrogen to be revived at a later date. Of course, these companies, such as Alcor Life Extension Foundation, have no idea how to actually revive the body, and only tell the patients that they will be revived at a later date when the technology becomes available.
A more realistic approach lies within the nuclei of our cells, within our chromosomes. Our chromosomes have "protective bumpers" known as telomeres at both ends, to keep them from deteriorating or accidentally fusing with other chromosomes. Whenever human cells divide, the telomeres shorten -- and when they get too short, a cell can no longer divide and dies.
Therefore, if scientists can reduce the rate at which the telomeres shorten, the human lifespan can theoretically be increased. There are numerous clinical trials for telomere-related treatments, for cancer, diabetes, and inflammatory conditions, but to date none of these treatments have been approved.
Medical devices and 3-D printing
Although most companies researching life extension treatments aren't publicly traded, there are two major companies that are aiming to extend the human lifespan through technology -- Medtronic (NYSE:MDT) and Organovo (NASDAQ:ONVO).
Medtronic, the world's largest medical device maker, has always been a pioneer in creating technology to extend human lives. In 1957, it created the world's first battery-operated external pacemaker. Today, the company's pacemakers are remotely monitored around the clock in case of medical emergencies. In September, Medtronic gained FDA approval for the first wearable artificial pancreas, which connected a continuous glucose monitor to an insulin pump. Medtronic's devices use mechanical technology, rather than medicine, to extend our lifespans.
Organovo, which uses 3-D printing to print out human tissue, is another fascinating company to watch in this space. The company's 3-D human tissues can be used for research and development, tissue repair, or therapeutic implants. In other words, Organovo could one day print out human organs for transplant operations -- eventually rendering organ transplant waiting lists obsolete.
Considering the exciting growth potential in these body part replacement technologies, it's possible that Google might eventually expand from biopharmaceutical research into medical devices and 3-D tissue printing as well.
The Foolish takeaway
In closing, Google is one of those rare companies that uses its massive resources to fund projects that can have long-lasting impacts on the world. Some of those projects, such as its Wi-Fi balloons which were derided by Bill Gates, seem silly, but others, like Calico, could actually make a lasting impact.
Will Calico actually live up to its promise to extend the human lifespan by up to a century? That's debatable, but if any company can actually reach that lofty goal, it's definitely a Google-funded, one staffed with some of the brightest minds in the medical industry.