On Sept. 18, 2013, Calico, which has since been renamed Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL), formed the life science company Calico, initially committing $240 million to this endeavor, but later tacking on an additional $490 million on an as-needed basis. The interesting part is that Calico's stated mission is to understand the biology that controls lifespan. In plain English, Calico's intentions are to cure the underlying causes of aging and aging-related diseases such as cancer and neuro-degeneration.
While that may sound ambitious, to say the least, Calico was able to convince the Illinois-based biopharma AbbVie to join in the effort to unravel the biology of aging, and even commit $750 million to Calico's coffers.
AbbVie and Calico's bold life sciences joint venture is anything but a pipe dream, however. In fact, our understanding of the biology of aging has advanced by leaps and bounds during the last decade, suggesting that game-changing new therapies may indeed be on their way. With this in mind, let's take a deeper dive into the science these two giant companies are hoping to harness in their quest to perhaps make humans immortal -- or, at the very least, significantly extend our lifespans.
Why aging and death might be curable
Cells that can continually divide are essentially immortal -- from lowly protozoans and bacteria to the stem cells of multicellular organisms, such as humans. Death is, therefore, only a prerequisite in so-called terminally differentiated cells, or cells that have transformed into a specific tissue type, such as cardiovascular or neural tissue.
The reason is straightforward enough. Every single day, your cells accumulate mutations in their DNA structure due to normal metabolic processes, as well as environmental contaminants. If these cells aren't purged after a certain time period, they may form tumors that could be life-threatening to the organism as a whole.
In fact, this issue is the basis of many forms of cancer. After all, mutated cells that are able to escape immune detection and also fail to undergo what's known as programmed cell death are the main culprits behind tumor formation. Viewed this way, cell death can be seen as nothing more than a critical regulatory function. But that's where the most compelling opportunity for medical intervention lies.
What companies like Calico are attempting to do is to intervene at the cellular level to enhance DNA repair mechanisms. If your cells don't harbor any harmful mutations after all, there's little reason for them to be replaced. Although the details are murky, at best, what Calico's researchers might be doing is first looking into ways to regulate DNA repair in vivo, and then developing ways to shut down the process of programmed cell death in terminally differentiated tissues.
Another potential route would be to use naturally-occurring genetic mutations known to be linked with an increased lifespan in some human families to inform the search on how to artificially manipulate the process of aging. Needless to say, though, we are just starting down this long road -- but the prospects are certainly intriguing, regardless of the exact methodology involved.
Is Alphabet about to produce a disruptive new therapy that can benefit investors?
Curing death, or substantially slowing the aging process, would undoubtedly be a major leap forward in medical science. Any such technology would obviously have eye-popping commercial potential that may even be transformative for large-cap companies such as AbbVie and Alphabet.
Having said that, investors need to understand that such a herculean undertaking is likely to occur over several decades, not a few months or even years. Along the way, AbbVie and Calico probably believe this joint venture will produce at least some approved therapies to justify their largish initial investments, but a quantum leap in our understanding of aging doesn't appear to be imminent. And that's the main reason why investors shouldn't be holding their breaths for a Calico IPO anytime soon.
The most important takeaway from this Sci-Fi-like joint venture between two of the biggest names in biopharma and technology is perhaps that the journey toward greatly expanding the human lifespan has finally begun in earnest.
George Budwell owns shares of AbbVie. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.