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Could Google Really Discover the Fountain of Youth?

By Cheryl Swanson - Sep 12, 2015 at 1:39PM

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Google's biotech subsidiary Calico could someday unleash a pipeline of drugs focused on factors that limit life span. But will it really conquer mortality? Don't hold your breath.

It's an ancient question. Will humankind ever triumph over old age?

Ask $410 billion Internet-search giant Google (GOOG -0.08%) (GOOGL -0.16%) that question, and you'll hear it's possible. In fact, in the Alphabet soup of Google's reorganization, its new holding company will soon be managing Calico, a biotech with the explicit aim of defeating old age.

Google's crazy moon shots are well known -- particularly since the company often defies the odds and succeeds. But we're not talking about creating self-driving cars, or translating the web into 64 languages, here. We're talking about extending human life indefinitely. Defying death. While many companies are focused on diseases, virtually no one is trying to target the cellular degradation involved in aging, which causes many diseases, and eventually, death.

Except Calico. As Time magazine put it when Google's CEO Larry Page announced the subsidiary's formation, Calico hopes to "cure death."

With that kind of goal, I'm tempted to say the next stop for Google is the Twilight Zone. But, not so fast. Google has some of the deepest pockets in the planet, and with its financial backing, as well as a vast array of technology and creative resources behind it, could it actually happen?

How Google plans to extend your life
Google launched Calico by putting Apple chairman Art Levinson at the helm as CEO and founding investor. Tim Cook even weighed in with his own support of the project. "For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking," he said. The Apple CEO described Levinson as "one of the crazy ones who thinks it doesn't have to be that way."

The legendary Levinson is also the former CEO of Genentech. Recently, he's been extending Calico's tentacles into top-tier research organizations and setting up a long line of collaborations. The most notable is a major R&D deal with AbbVie. Under the agreement, the two companies will co-invest up to $1.5 billion and share costs and profits equally for any developed drugs.

Calico is also collaborating on a drug that perks up old muscles and aging brains, found by UC Berkeley researchers. "We've established that you can use a single small molecule to rescue essential function in not only aged brain tissue, but aged muscle," said Dr. David Schaffer , the biomolecular engineering professor steering the research. Berkeley researchers also noted that this is only a first step toward a therapy.

In April, Calico also started a partnership with UC San Francisco. The company is paying an undisclosed sum for some rights (also undisclosed) to research on how cells function under stress. The hope is to develop a new way to guard against cognitive decline tied to aging.  

Why are some 90-year-olds vigorous and healthy?
Take a step back, and you'll see why Google is so keenly interested in research on extending life. Research into health, longevity, and disease is increasingly about genetics, and genetics is becoming a question of computing power and machine learning.

Data crunching underpins all of Google's wildly divergent interests, since it is one place the search giant can swiftly add value to research. To help apply Big Data to aging, Google recently snagged access to data to locate genetic causes of long life. is a family tree business that sells DNA testing kits. By picking through the data of millions of family trees, Calico hopes to find the reasons behind long life spans and uncover new drug targets.

The next step is data crunching in the cloud. Google has teamed up with MIT and Harvard with a cloud-based genome analysis tool. Through extensions to the Google Cloud Platform, researchers may not only find potential clues to aging, but also create more personalized and tailored healthcare based on the DNA of the individual.

Right now, it's much easier to generate genomic data than to transform it into information that can improve human health. But through Google's Cloud Platform, over 1.4 million DNA samples have been sequenced. The long-term goal is helping the science community to potentially store, access, and process the genomic database of various populations.

While Calico has been quick to acknowledge new collaborations with scientists and institutions, it has disclosed almost nothing in the way of financial details. In fact, much of Calico's operation is being kept under wraps, according to Fierce Biotech Research. "Executives inside the company have been notoriously tight-lipped, declining invitations for interviews," the site reported.

The takeaway
Beginning with Q4, Google will report separate financial results for its core Google business and the remaining Alphabet businesses. The move will offer investors more insight into Google's spending on its various moon shots.

Some of these projects are bound to fail. And since Google investors are mostly practical folk, they may get their pitchforks out and agitate for management to stop throwing so many buckets of cash at far-fetched research.

In the case of Calico, CEO Art Levinson isn't at all worried he might lose his R&D ivory tower. As he told Forbes' Mathew Herper, "Everyone involved understands the long-term nature of this business." Levinson added that Calico's end goals, necessarily far in the future, won't change.

No magic bullet will prolong life. But Calico is a highly intriguing name to watch in biotech. While it's not publicly traded at this point (and may never be), if Google wanted to profit in the short term, the Alphabet reorganization of the company could facilitate a spinoff. I doubt it will happen, but look at billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong's NantKwest IPO in July. NantKwest pulled off the biggest biotech IPO in 10 years, with an initial market cap of $2.6 billion.

Meanwhile, since all of us are aging, there's at least a chance we may benefit from any discoveries made, or any therapies that eventually result. Will Calico eventually find the key to longevity? It's a seductive thought, but it's also anybody's guess. One thing does seem certain: With Google signing the checks, and Levinson's brilliant mind steering the ship, Calico will make waves in the biotech world, no matter what.

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