Can people invest in 100 years of immortality?
In the year 2500 nobody on earth will die of age-related diseases - that is a fact! Even if an invented one. But isn't the thought of eternal youth, an eternal life alone seductive enough to succumb to it? In the past, death was a matter for theologians and priests, today biologists and engineers have taken over. In many places death has been degraded to a purely technical problem that needs to be solved. For example in Silicon Valley.
Calico: The Cure From Death?
In 2013, Google founded the research and development company "California Life Company" in San Francisco. Calico's stated goal is to prolong people's lives, stop disease and "eliminate death". What at first glance seems like a PR gag has meanwhile become the primary scientific project of the 21st century for a growing number of researchers.
Calico boss is the molecular biologist Arthur D. Levinson, who also sits on the board of directors at Apple. As one of the pioneers in Silicon Valley, he is now celebrated as a genius in the field of biotechnology. Under his leadership, around 150 of the most ambitious scientists from the fields of medicine, drug development, molecular biology, genetics and computer biology conduct research.
Research in the black box
But what exactly is Calico researching? On the company's website only cryptic target formulations can be found: “Understanding the fundamental science of aging and finding treatments for the associated and intractable diseases.” Calico keeps most of the precise targets and methods under lock and key - connected with the note that there are no interim results want to publish.
One thing is clear: Calico researches the aging process and how it can be slowed down. People should get up to 100 years older. The underlying assumption of the Calico researchers is that the body as a complex system is gradually weakened in its individual parts by age-related symptoms such as arterial blockages or diseases such as Alzheimer's - up to complete system failure. If you know the individual building blocks and can repair or replace them, you can delay death.
Drugs and gene mutations
Among other things, Calico made the research alliance with the pharmaceutical company AbbVie public, which has just been extended by three more years to 2022. Calico conducts basic research, AbbVie takes care of the implementation and provides support with commercial expertise, for example in marketing. Costs and profits are shared. Earlier this year, Art Levinson was quoted in a press release as saying that drugs are being developed that "challenge the status quo" and combat age-related diseases. It is not clear when the first pills against old-age diseases will be ready for the market.
Cynthia Kenyon's involvement with Calico suggests another research focus: cell biology and genetic medicine. The geneticist discovered back in the 1990s that a worm with a special gene mutation can reach twice its age. Today she is also interested in mice and is now Vice President at Calico.
Data as a key
Calico also hopes to gain new knowledge and research approaches by evaluating large amounts of data on biological processes and age-related diseases. For example, a cooperation with Ancestry, an American website for genealogy, is known. In addition to their family trees, users can also enter medical and genetic data and use a genealogical DNA test to determine their geographical origin. Ancestry advertises a "secure DNA technology" that is already "trusted by over 10 million customers". Calico evaluates the anonymized information and tries to find similarities in the DNA profiles of people who live particularly long. Publicly available data from biobanks are used in the same way.
This approach is hardly surprising - after all, it is Google's core competence to collect data and evaluate it with algorithms. Health is a real treasure trove of valuable data and thus an obvious field of research for Alphabet. Even if that makes the privacy advocates sweat on their foreheads.
money does not matter
The company's website states that “the funds are already in place” for Calico's research. According to media reports, Alphabet, along with other donors like AbbVie, has already invested $ 2.5 billion in research into eternal life. A lot of money for a project with such a long-term focus and a realistic chance of a fiasco.
When founding Calico, Alphabet boss Larry Page suggested not investing all of the money “in such speculative things”, but spending an appropriate amount on things “that are a little long-term and a little more ambitious”. And the resources are without question available at the third most valuable company in the world.
No bad prerequisites for cracking the code of life: Some of the best scientists gathered, vast amounts of data at their disposal and a lot of capital behind them. New insights and discoveries in relation to aging and age-related diseases are to be expected from Calico.
But is eternal life in the end - despite all monetary and scientific efforts - just as impossible as a perpetual motion machine? Calico founder Bill Maris said in a 2015 CNN interview: “If you ask me today whether it is possible to live 500 years, the answer is yes!” The Calico website reads: “We may succeed. We may fail ”.
So when will Google make us immortal? I lean far out of the window: someday, maybe. But probably never.
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