Could Evading Death be the Ultimate Search Engine?


 Andrew Porterfield

Google has been called a lot things--savior of student research projects, consummate time-waster, invader of privacy--but now the company says it may be able to find a way around death.

Boldly going where many have gone before--attempting to cheat death--and expecting a different result might be the definition of insanity. But Google has created a new company called Calico, which it says will focus on extending human lifespans and reducing the impact of diseases long associated with aging. Currently, the new venture has but one employee, Arthur Levinson.

Mr. Levinson is not a typical "employee." He also happens to be a founding investor in Calico. He also is chairman of Genentech as well as of Apple Computer, and a director of Hoffmann-LaRoche (which owns a great deal of Genentech).

Calico--supposedly a shortened version of "California Life Company"--will step into a medical research environment that's stymied by more than death. One of biomedical research's biggest challenges is how to deal with the effects of aging. Key unanswered questions include: Is there an absolute upper age limit? Which is more important, extending lifespans or improving quality of life for older people? Are there other, more effective areas in which to apply our resources?

Although Calico does not yet have a website and few details of the company's aims have emerged, it does appear that the venture will fund basic research in issues related to aging, and have its own labs for research. It is what Silicon Valley types often call a "moon-shot" program, something so far-fetched that its value may lie more in the ideas it sparks, as opposed to tangible research results (at least for now).

One strength that Calico may be in a unique position to harvest is the application of so-called "big data" to medicine. As the internet has grown, we've collected more information about the human (and other) genome, computing power has strengthened, an enormous volume of data needs to be sifted through and analyzed. From that data can come hitherto-unknown observations of how cells, molecules and bodies work. And what better place to get that understanding than the people who have a picture of everybody's house, everywhere on the planet?


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