Skip to main content

Aging and Lifespan

Google Versus Aging

If you haven’t heard that Google is now funding research into human aging and lifespan, they’ll be very disappointed. There’s been plenty of publicity, which I find sort of interesting, considering that there’s not too much to announce:

The Time article—and a Google blog post released at the same time—provided scant detail about what the new company, called Calico, will actually do. According to Time, the company, to be based somewhere in the Bay Area, will place long-term bets on unspecified technologies that could help fight the diseases of aging.
Page did tell Time he thinks biomedical researchers may have focused on the wrong problems and that health-care companies don’t think long-term enough. “In some industries it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas,” Page told Time. “We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”
The company’s initial investors are Google and Arthur Levinson, also chairman of Apple’s board and that of biotech company Genentech. Levinson, a trained biochemist, will be the CEO of Calico, which the The New York Times reported is short for California Life Company.

I’m fine with this. Actually, I’m more than fine – I think it’s a good idea, and I also think that it’s a good idea for the money coming into it to be long-term, patient money, because it’s going to have to be. I think that human life span can probably be extended, although no one’s ready to say if that’s going to mean thirty extra years of being 40, or thirty extra years of being 90. If you know what Trimalchio says about seeing the Cumaean Sybil in the Satyricon, you’ll have come across the problem before. (Trimalchio’s an unlikely fount of wisdom, but he seems pretty much on target with that one).
Patience will be needed on several fronts. Biochemically, there are actually a number of ideas to follow up on, and while that’s good news in general, it also means that there’s a lot of work ahead. Not all of these are going to actually extend lifespan, I think it’s safe to say, and sorting them out will be a real job. But that’s the sort of problem that a lot of therapeutic areas have. Aging research has several others piled on top of it.
One of them it shares with areas like diabetes and cardiovascular disease: you’re looking for a drug or therapy that the patient will be taking for the rest of their lives – their extended lives, if all goes well – so toxicology becomes a huge concern. Tiny safety concerns can become big ones over the decades. And that leads into another big issue, the regulatory one. How would one set up a clinical trial for an anti-aging therapy? How long would it run? How long would you have to work with the FDA to get something together? Keep in mind that the agency doesn’t have any framework for making people better than normal. You’ll note that despite the possible lifespan enhancement with the sirtuin compounds, GSK never really mentioned this possibility in their takeover of Sirtris. It was all about diabetes and other conditions that have defined clinical endpoints and a regulatory environment already in place.
The answer to that problem, then, is surely to pick some disease of aging and see if you can ameliorate it by attacking the aging process in general. It’s a bit like a second derivative: in other therapeutic areas, you pick a biomarker, and you try to get approval based on an effect against it as a surrogate for the long-term benefits against the actual disease. In this case, though, you’d pick an actual medical condition, and hope to get approval using it as a surrogate against the meta-disease of aging itself. Those will not be short trials, nor easy to run, nor will it be easy to obtain statistical significance in them.
And I don’t think we’ll be seeing one of those for quite some time. Larry Page himself is 40, I believe, so if he’s looking for a benefit that he might realize, he’s almost certainly out of luck. As am I at 51. Page’s ten or twenty year timeline seems very short indeed. If I find a wonder drug in my lab this afternoon, it won’t be hitting the pharmacy shelves for about fifteen years itself. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I doubt if anything will be worked out enough to try before either of us are much further into old age, at which point you start to run into that Cumaean Sibyl problem. Unless, of course, you are fortunate enough to come up with something that actually turns the clock back a bit, but that’s much less likely. Just slowing it down is enough of a feat already. I realize that this is more of my patented brand of “pessimistic optimism”, but I can’t make myself come up with any other opinion yet.
I thought seriously about titling this post “Gegen Den Tod Ist Kein Kräutlein Gewachsen”, but I figured that would drive my traffic into the basement. That is, I’m told, one of the mottos of the old German herbalists, translating as “Against death does no simple grow”. It’s safe to assume, though, that anything that really does usefully treat aging will not be simple, so the Germans are probably still in the right.
Update: a reader has sent along more information on that quotation. It actually goes back to Latin (cue various readers holding their heads and moaning). It goes “. . .contra vim mortis non est medicamen in hortis”, and is part of the declamations that are more or less Quintilian’s work on Roman court cases and rhetoric (thus often ascribed to “pseudo-Quintilian”).

85 comments on “Google Versus Aging”

  1. biotechbaumer says:

    It almost certainly becomes, as you said, a second derivative issue. Many diseases are due to the aging process: CVD, cancer, neurodegeneration. Companies trying to develop drugs against these diseases could equally call themselves anti-aging companies no?
    Perhaps the clearest regulatory path forward would be to try to treat an accelerated aging disease such as Progeria. At least the clinical endpoints would be much shorter.

  2. pgwu says:

    Someone young tweeted not long ago saying it sucks when the smartest people in his generation spend their time figuring out how to make more people clicking ad buttons. Would be interesting to see how this is going to change. One VC is proud of not funding startups with people who have PhD degrees, as told by another VC on a blog because “a real entrepreneur would not have the patience to complete a Ph.D.”. With attitudes like that, he might as well wait for godot. But big data is going to save us all, according to the gurus.

  3. Sam Weller says:

    I am wondering whether the company will be as focused on drug therapy or biotechnology as your blog suggests. Sure, this can be part of the equation, but isn’t it possible that life span can be extended significantly by other means? Nutrition and exercise of course come into mind, but also sleep, body temperature control, etc.

  4. johnnyboy says:

    hmm let’s see: a few million californian dollars vs. 3 billion years of evolution – I wonder who will win ?
    Seriously, rich folks: why not throw your money at real world, solvable problems ? Like oh, I don’t know, multi-drug resistant bacteria maybe ? Or malaria ? Or just clean drinking water ? I’m sure Page and Levinson will find it an amazing accomplishment for humankind if they get to live for 5 years longer, but personally I don’t really want to be 90 for 20 years, which is what this surely will amount to, if it does amount to anything.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Well said Johnnyboy, well said indeed

  6. jbosch says:

    A tree when it reaches it’s lifespan dies off and new trees are allowed to continue where the old tree was.
    Why do we humans think we are irreplaceable or even worth hanging around past our anticipated lifetime ?
    Just think about the world population for a minute if we should find something that allows us to even extend our lifespan even more, then resources that are limited become even more limited. And it’s obvious from the statistics that people tend to get older in developed nations. This will further split the world in those who have and those that are exploited. Just a different example is growing corn for fuel instead of feeding people. Does anybody care how much the tortilla cost in Mexico for a poor family now ? The price has increased more than triple in the past 5 years.
    I honestly think it’s waste of money.
    We should more focus on treating diseases and allowing everybody (very much including or even focusing on developing nations) to reach the standard of developed nations.
    In some countries of the World in the 21st century the average life expectancy is still 40, in Europe and US it’s almost double of that.
    Just my 2 cents

  7. Curious Wavefunction says:

    Yawn…another day, another ridiculous, sensationalist TIME magazine cover (Remember the “Cure for Cancer” travesty a few months ago?).

  8. jbosch says:

    “Gegen Den Tod Ist Kein Krautlein Gewachsen”
    That’s actually a pretty good one and hits the nail of the head 🙂
    But you missed in your translation somewhere the “Kräutlein” which is herb, so there is hope though maybe nature has not herb against death, but you chemist might find something in chemical space 🙂
    My free translation is:
    “No herb has grown against death”
    The closest english idiom I can come up with is:
    There’s no cure for that

  9. Derek Lowe says:

    #8 Jbosch – just got the umlaut back in there, so I go from “little cabbage” (I guess) back to “herb”. The translation I offered is from a science fiction novel by James Blish, and “simple”, I believe, is an old herbal term for a medicine made from a single plant. Gegen den Tod ist kein Molekül synthesiert?

  10. a. nonymaus says:

    Perhaps they’re going to explore how to reduce socioeconomic inequality, which has proven negative effects on lifespan and quality of life.

  11. Anonymous says:

    If these ventures discover something worthwhile, I’m sure that there are ways to make use of it which fall outside the FDA’s regulatory frameworks. In any case, an investigatory new drug of exceptional promise needn’t be “FDA approved” for people like Mr. Page to take it — as Sirtris has shown with their off-label sales of Resveratrol, as sports dopers are showing with their (presumed) use of those unapproved PPAR-delta agonists, as ALS-sufferers have shown with their grassroots efforts at obtaining investigational drugs, etc., etc….
    As for reducing “socioeconomic inequality” and enriching people in the backwaters of Africa and India… Good luck with that. Seriously. I think that viable anti-aging strategies are more plausible. In any case, it’s apples and oranges.

  12. an onymis says:

    a. nonymaus makes a good point. Google might have more luck extending mean life expectancies by treating conditions that lead to death in the relatively young rather than expending all there effort trying to help the very old tack a little more time onto their wheelchair years.

  13. MoMo says:

    Page is arrogant and naive at the same time. Just because he made mega billions with Google doesn’t give him any authority to judge the Pharma industry who do not “shoot for things that are really, really important”. WTF does he know?
    The molecular world and the cyber world are separated by vast degrees of technical issues, and applying whatever philosophy they use at Google is welcomed, but such visionaries will fail and don’t hold your breath. The Cyber world is filled with mental toddlers, no fetuses, compared to the thinking needed in medical science.
    So plow your money into a “Fountain of Youth” pill Larry, and while you are at it you might as well fund projects to look for Unicorns and Yetis.
    You’ll have better success with the latter.

  14. Puff the Mutant Dragon says:

    I’m with @4 on this one. Why throw money at aging when there are other problems that need a much more urgent solution (e.g. global warming, malaria, drug-resistant bacteria…the list goes on…)

  15. QOTL says:

    an onymis (#12), I don’t have access to the Time story, but this quote from the Atlantic Wire reacap (
    suggest they are thinking along those lines:
    “One of the things I thought was amazing is that if you solve cancer, you’d add about three years to people’s average life expectancy,” Page told Time. “We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that’ll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it’s very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it’s not as big an advance as you might think.”

  16. Anonymous says:

    Live longer and you just have many more unproductive years feeding off state pensions and requiring more expensive treatments for diseases like AD. This is insane. They should invent a more effective cancer that strikes at 70, at least that would do some good for the world.

  17. Pig Farmer says:

    I’ll cast my lot in with #4 and # 10 as well. There is something rather obscene about throwing all this money at a rich man’s first-world pipedream when there are far more pressing problems that would benefit greatly from that investment. I’m 51. I’ll be grateful if I reach my mid-eighties (like my grandfather, who by that time had had enough of life). I might be happy with 60 or 70 years more of being 51 (although I can already feel myself going downhill), but another 30 years of being 80 or 90? No thanks.

  18. Johannes says:

    Wont come from small molecules

  19. ellita says:

    Speaking of fighting evolution–I suspect that homo sapiens is probably already much better optimized for long lifespan than other critters. Mice (or worms, for that matter) are optimized for fast reproduction, not long life. All those animal models where you can extend longevity, whether it’s by calorie restriction or resveratrol, will probably not work as well or at all in people. But, the media loves this stuff.

  20. NMH says:

    I think we should try to improve healthspan before we try to improve longevity, but I think Page wants longevity because he knows he will probably remain healthy as long as he maintains a good diet, so he wants to live longer; 130 instead of 100 years.
    Its just a really rich guy who wants to be immortal, or live a long time. Think Henry Ford.
    We dont need fancy drugs for the most massive improvement of healthspan that would be gained simply by eating more like Seventh Day Adventists.

  21. Hap says:

    MoMo: No, nobody really seems to care that much about income inequality (well, other than those who can’t or won’t do anything about it), but anti-aging drugs don’t work well against bombs and bullets. Lots of people with short lives and no money and nothing to lose and a fortunate few with long, relatively happy lifespans (but who depend on the stuff made by the rest) seems like a recipe for the old colonial days at best and endless slaughter at worst.

  22. MDACC Grad says:

    What’s the [corporate] point in attempting this when the FDA requires a 20 year trial, your IP lasts 5 years once you start the trial, India compulsory licenses it out in 4 years and China stole it before you even started the trial?

  23. newnickname says:

    @All: I thought that Life Extension was already solved with Buckyballs. I read about it In the Pipeline (April 18, 2012. “Buckyballs Prolong Life? Really?” and several followups, including May 9 and June 12.)!

  24. Vanzetti says:

    ITT: Deathists and their bullshit.

  25. cynical1 says:

    “An optimist is a fellow who believes what’s going to be, will be postponed. ” (Kin Hubbard)

  26. Pig Farmer says:

    Can’t speak for the rest, but I’m not deathist. I just think it’s a matter of priorities. There are other problems we ought to address first before extending the life spans of a few very rich people. Otherwise, it’s bullets and bombs,just like Hap says. We are many. They are few.

  27. RKN says:

    There has always been push back against bold projects, the funding of which people say would be better spent elsewhere, until years later when the project has completed and these same people applaud all the incidental technologies that were discovered in the course of pursuing the project. Think going to the moon.
    I hope similar incidental goodness comes from this latest Google venture, even assuming they fall short of their goal. On the other hand it may just fizzle out. The Bay Area being a place where if you’re a “player” and haven’t started a new company this week your reputation is in doubt.

  28. Squib says:

    People in the comments always seem to think Big Pharma takes an approach that is too conservative. Everyone is angry that nobody is trying to think “outside the box”. However, when something like this happens, you guys all seem to get angry as well. What are you looking for? If Google throws a couple hundred million at whatever problem they’re going after then so what? The money is inconsequential to them.
    I live in the Bay Area and see their driverless cars every once in a while. They seem to be beating all the traditional auto companies at that. Why not let google try something crazy? The cynicism around here seems to prevail whether its another article about R&D cuts or something going into Phase III that everyone thinks will fail. Why be so cynical about this too?

  29. B says:

    @28 and 29:
    The difference with ‘the moon’ or with ‘driverless cars’ is that you have a target and you have a set of rigid rules and criteria that you have to fit to make something possible. Getting to the moon was worked out, we just had to know how to do it. The same is with driverless cars.
    That IS NOT true with aging and death. We do not fully understand the underlying mechanisms of why we age and what is going on in the ageing process. There are many theories, many of which seem likely but we still don’t know the rigid facts of the process. Thus, targeting which we do not fully understand is likely to be frivolous. The same thing is seen time and time again with alzheimer’s therapies. We do not understand the mechanism and are left hitting our head against the wall, hoping that will fix the problem.
    Until we have the biology of the problem understood, we will not be able to find the answer.

  30. Mr Toad says:

    The abundance of teenage idealism in the comments here is surprising. “solve world hunger/malaria before you invest in extending life span”. Are you serious? On this imaginary scale of social justice, probably 90% of businesses should be closed down and every nickel and dime should be spent on feeding the hungry and resolving regional conflicts.

  31. alf says:

    Squib, I completely agree.

  32. why? says:

    Brings to mind a funny rant by Lewis Black on the Daily Show: “mortality is NOT a flaw, its a feature”. Healthy lifespan is great but I don’t think we need humanity to endure into universal senility.

  33. Hap says:

    Google’s got lots of money and they (and their people) can spend it as they want. I certainly can’t be claimed to have a surplus of imagination, and maybe they do, and something will come of it.
    My assumption, though, is that they’re trying to do something for humanity as a whole, and not just for themselves or their friends. In that case, you do probably need to think about what might happen if you succeed. A solution to big problems that presents lots of problems it itself might be a good thing, or it might not. If you mean to good for humanity, then it’s important to think about what you’re doing, and what kind of world you want to make.
    31: We’ve been trying hard-nosed “everyone for themselves” ideals for about forty years, and it mostly seems to be getting us to Brazil, thirty years ago. Not sure why “teenage idealism” is a worse sin, exactly.

  34. Mr Toad says:

    #34 I don’t know how Brazil was 40 years ago, and I think it’s besides the point.
    We are talking about private money going into a business venture, not charity. If Google decided to invest the money in yet another smartphone or some other gadget or a jet plane, you wouldn’t have seen these “save the world first” reactions. While the skepticism (and by extension cynicism) is completely justified from a scientific standpoint, ranking this investment on a moral value scale is irrelevant. Extending life span is not an immoral, and not even an unworthy goal. It may be low on some people’s priority, but what about the iPhone6, or the next Airbus jet, or the next Cereal from General Mills? Is it OK to spend money on these luxuries when people are starving to death somewhere?
    At the end of the day, this company may go bust, but along the way it will most likely spend a lot of money on research, and some of it will turn out to be useful. Not sure that this blog readers can afford to snub such initiatives.

  35. Hap says:

    Why? Isn’t everything you do judgeable on such a scale, or does money make all other issues go away? I’m curious about that, because I’ve got some appointments at local banks to make if that’s true…
    If they’re trying to make money, they can do what they want, how they want (within the law). (Even then, though, moral questions do and should exist – spending money has consequences, just like other actions, and so what comes of what you buy may be personally and, if you’re successful enough, historically relevant.) If they’re trying to make things better for people or appear to be doing so (because, unless they’re looking for ancillary funding, that would be the likely goal of all of the publicity), then questions of whether what you want to do is likely to make things better for people seem rather pertinent. If you spend money to do good and make harm instead, then you’d have been better off not spending the money at all.
    You could also ask whether the exploring on the way to that goal might be more fruitful than explorations to other goals, and that’s probably a harder question for anyone to answer (else it wouldn’t be research).

  36. Hap says:

    It is also good that someone is thinking long-term and not right now. At least for a lot of the research worth doing in the long term, though, questions of whether the ends are good will come up, whether or not the venture is public or private.
    The discussions on obesity here for one might be analogous in some ways. It would be good to have something to lessen the frequency of obesity, but the issues of moral hazard (would we just eat more?) have come into deciding whether to try to find one or not, even in what would be solely for-profit ventures. The need for long-term use of any such agent and the resultant safety bars are probably the bigger issues, but the question of whether such a drug would be a good idea is relevant in any case.

  37. I think this is an excellent move on Google’s part. Irrespective of the specific merits of aging research, I was waiting for the time when Google would do what AT&T did with Bell Labs. Instead of criticizing them let’s celebrate the fact that a company which actually has the resources to throw into long-term, blue sky thinking is actually doing something to that effect.

  38. Anonymous says:

    Plus, who wouldn’t like a pharma job where you get 20% of your spare time to do whatever you want. Everyone complains about not being able to take risks in pharma, so what if you got to spend every friday making “batshit crazy” compounds just for the fun of it. I bet you’d see some fun compounds that wouldn’t get made normally. Many of google’s big products have come out of people pet projects they started for fun. At least it would give everyone less to complain about.

  39. Omar says:

    The comments on here simply baffle the mind. Lets examine some of the blind negativity:
    1. Maybe we should work on instead of wasting money on aging research.
    Um. Okay, you go ahead and spend your money on income inequality, world hunger, whatever. Your personal feelings on which issues are more or less important bear no relevance to the subject. Page and company decided that aging requires some new efforts with more long-term strategy that is difficult under normal circumstances. I feel the subject is interesting and well worth investigating. It’s fine if you don’t, but at least try providing some scientific reasons to explain your objections (it is a science blog).
    2. Death has always been with us, it is arrogant to think we can conquer nature.
    Seriously? The nature fallacy on an esoteric biochemistry blog? Thankfully, people who actually contribute to humanity’s advancement almost never hold such irrational perspectives. After all, if billions of years of evolution didn’t give humans wings, how arrogant it is to think we can fling massive metal structures across the planet, carrying hundreds of people at near sonic speeds. The arrogance!
    Our nature is to use our extraordinary processing power to alter our destiny on far shorter time scales than evolution allows, in any way we choose, as long as we can manage it. If you think it’s a bad idea, explain why. Impulsively calling something “unnatural” is utterly meaningless.
    3. Immortality and aging research are bad/good/unfeasible/desirable because of .
    Thank you.

  40. anony-mous says:

    Such a silly waste of $$$ ! The answer is soooooo very obvious ! All we need are Sirt1 activators ! No??? Then AMPK activators, IGF1 antagonists, FOXO inhibitors………

  41. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Toad and Omar get it.
    As for buckeyballs, is anybody trying to replicate that study, or has it already been replicated?

  42. Bobby Shaftoe says:

    Glad you’re in the game, Omar….

  43. Anonymous says:

    Yes, seriously, death will always be with us. If this needs to be explained to you, there is no reason to have a dialog.
    Wings to airplanes, really? Go invest your money with Calico.
    Oh wait, I am underestimating the biological impact of processing power!

  44. Anonymous says:

    So… Where is the biggest bang for the buck in pharma research these days?
    As in: ‘best humanitarian outcome’ – and notice that I’m asking for research gains, not things we already know about, like clean watee and vaccination.
    Antimalarials are an obvious one, but antibiotics would be my best bet: it’s a field that’s relatively unprofitable, and therefore short of research money rather than ideas.

  45. kling says:

    Page did not make his $ accidentally. He earned his fortune. It is his to spend.
    I suggest those who have problems with this concept make their own fortune first before judging what he spends his $ on.

  46. Anonymous says:

    Yeah now that we have solved the cancer, neurodegeneration and stroke problems, it is time to move on to the aging problem.
    Rich folk like to think they can buy themselves out of any problem and are freaked out when they realize they can’t get out of this life alive no matter how rich they are. I can’t blame them for trying, because they have very nice lives. Who would want to give up a terrific, rich person’s life for a dirt blanket? However on this new immortality plan, I will place my bet on the actuarial tables, because the insurance industry gets this right.
    Page is 40 and in about 40 years half his male cohort will be dead. Five years later half of those remaining will be dead and three years later another half will be dead. Of the remaining 15% of Page’s male cohort still alive, most will be frail, have multiple infirmities and many will be suffering from one or several fatal diseases.
    Frankly for most people living beyond 87 with the prospect of each day feeling a little worse than the day before, a longer life is not such a great experience. I come from a family with longevity genes to spare. Most of my first and second line relatives lived (or are alive) well into their 80’s and 90’s and to a person they were pretty much ready to check out when that time came even though few suffered from the big killer diseases. You see, all of their friends were dead, many were very frail, and they all felt like crap most days of their last years alive. Many went to sleep each night praying for a peaceful death (just two got one) only to awaken the next day when the sun rose. They then started praying again.
    So Page and Co. better be careful what they wish for as they just might get it. However, turning a bad short good-bye into a long drawn out good-bye does not carry much attraction for me or for my potential caretakers – my children and grandchildren.

  47. MoMo says:

    Yes, its Googles’ money to spend, but is it really? Sure they earned it, but at whose expense? Riches come at the expense of the poorest. How many tax breaks and loopholes do they take to earn their billions? Look at them closely and you will see that Cyber billionaires find creative ways to stash their cash, then create Tax write-offs for their “research” screwing the American public.
    The smart see right through this, the rest don’t care as long as they can surf the web using Google for cats playing pianos and free porn readily. Which is what 37% of the internet is used for.
    So go ahead with the Fountain of Youth pill, Larry, fend off the reaper while the rest of humanity suffers at your expense.

  48. Omar says:

    @44, how do you know death will always be with us? Death is likely to be with us for the foreseeable future, but I doubt it’ll always be with us. The brain is a physical object that works through the understood laws of physics. There is no reason to assume that in a million years, humanity will still have not figured out how to transfer the brain’s data into a healthier body as one ages. But you’re probably the kind of person who don’t think we’ll be around for a hundred years, let alone a million.
    Regardless, we don’t have to become immortal for such research to be worthwhile. It may give us some insight on how to combat cancer and other age-related diseases. It may allow us to live a bit longer. It may simply allow us to feel healthier at old age. There are many near-future benefits to be had by investing in longevity research.

  49. metaphysician says:

    Was about to say something along those lines, myself. “Aging” is not a simple problem, but in the course of “solving” it, you would surely run across a *lot* of useful discoveries. After all, one of the first obstacles to living longer is keeping cancer from breaking out. I am willing to bet that a method of preventing cancer at age 90-120 would also give a lot of useful tools for dealing with cancers at younger ages. Ditto for dementia. And heart disease.

  50. Anonymous says:

    @49: Death is necessary and good. It is how we adapt and evolve as a species. Just as the death and replacement of each cell is good for our body, the death and replacement of each person is good for our species. When a cell becomes immortal we call it cancer, and it kills us. Similarly, human immortality would ultimately wipe out our species, because we would not be able to adapt and evolve with a changing world.

  51. Matt says:

    So we’re blowing past “computer guys are about to learn an expensive lesson about the complexity of biology” and going straight to “even if it works I won’t like it.”
    A sample of 1930s vintage blog comments about developing penicillin:
    “Bacteria have been evolving so much longer than humans, it’s hubris to imagine we can outwit infection.”
    “Why should we seek yet another medicine for the well-fed when inadequate nutrition kills so many?”
    “Medical interventions will just keep alive those dead-ends who should die to improve the species.”

  52. Omar says:

    @51, the issue with cancer has nothing to do with the immortality of its cells. We don’t like it because it kills us. Nobody is talking about achieving immortality by turning humans into a pile of ravenous and uncontrollable cells. There are other types of “immortal” cells in the human body, and we don’t consider them cancerous. In fact, there is no connection whatsoever between the undesirability of cancer and that of immortality (if we decide it is undesirable).
    Your point about the need for death for society to evolve is well-worth considering. I don’t really know if it’s true. Certainly, if we wake up tomorrow and find out we’ve all become immortal, the effect of such disruption on society would very likely be disastrous. But a gradual acceptance of the possibility as the science and technology of longevity advances over many decades will shape humanity’s social landscape in ways that are difficult to predict today.
    It is also important to remember that if immortality becomes possible, it’ll be in a more technologically advanced world. Poverty and overpopulation are relatively minor issues in developed countries (relative to the situation historically), and will become similarly irrelevant in developing countries as they reach high levels of development. In other words, immortality will probably happen in a world that isn’t very concerned about over-population. And if global population growth reaches Northern European levels, then the world will be in a good shape for a long time, even with immortality.
    I don’t understand why you believe immortality will lead to the extinction of the species. How? Maybe it’ll lead to stagnation in innovation and social/technological progress, but extinction? I doubt it.

  53. Anonymous says:

    @53: If you have immortality, then you have either rapid overpopulation, or an ageing population without children. Neither is sustainable. It’s not rocket science.

  54. Matt says:

    @54: An ageing population without children is perfectly sustainable if advanced age no longer brings on mental or physical degeneration to render one incapable of self-support. It is unsustainable if life extension just means your fragile bones and dementia-wracked brain sit in a care facility for 50 more years before moving to a coffin, but I don’t think there is a danger of many people signing up for that.

  55. Anonymous says:

    @55: Except that without death and children to replace you, you no longer get evolution by natural selection. So if and when the environment changes, the species will no longer be able to adapt and survive. And how are you going to force everyone to have no children?
    Besides, a world full of 1,000-year-old people and no children doesn’t sound like my idea of eutopia.

  56. Matt says:

    If you want humans’ primary adaptation to changing environments to be genetic, like most other organisms, instead of tool use, I think that ship sailed about 50000 years ago.
    This isn’t Jesus-grade immortality the Googlers are after, just “not-increasing probability of death or disability with increasing age.” What’s the probability that a currently healthy 30 year old dies in a year? Use that to calculate the expected half-life of someone who suffers no mounting medical problems with age. A stable population among quasi-immortals just means a lower rate of birth and death, not the disappearance of either.
    How low can human fertility go without top-down coercion? I’m not sure, but look to South Korea for an example. It has fertility rates 30% lower than mainland China without the authoritarian aspects of the One Child policy. It is due for dramatic population shrinkage this century unless birth rates or life spans rise considerably. In the United States only 52% of pregnancies are intended; invent perfect contraception and US fertility rates would be even lower than present South Korean rates.

  57. Omar says:

    @54, 56: I already addressed that in the post you’re responding to. Developed countries don’t have a population growth problems. Take Sweden, an average European country in that regard. Their growth rate is close to zero (not counting immigration). If they are to achieve immortality today, they’d start growing at a rate of about 1% a year (10 annual births per 1000). That’s not exactly a scary thought, and well within the ability of advancing technology to sustain for a VERY long time. And that’s not taking into account the fact that a large percentage of that growth rate is due to immigrants who have migrated too recently to have adapted to a low-growth developed culture. In the far future, growth would be even smaller than that.
    So you don’t even need to stop having children even if everyone is immortal. Eventually you’d start running into problems, but we’re talking about vast timescales. By then, I hope we will have expanded somewhat into space, or developed other means of sustaining large population.
    Either way, your objections are far from convincing when the death of everyone who exist, and who will ever exist, is the price.

  58. Anonymous says:

    OK, all good points, thanks. Then I guess you are looking at a scenario where people just live healthy until they die by some accident (or rare illness), and a very low birth rate just matches the very low death rate. That could work.

  59. DOS says:

    Some of the commenters here are oozing negativity because they are just bitter and jealous that a software mogul is doing what their own pharmaceutical companies and organizations don’t have the vision, balls and resources to do. Lighten up, on one hand you complain that pharma is not thinking long term and on the other you also complain when someone outside pharma starts doing it.

  60. LOL says:

    Life and job prospects are so good in tech that they actually want to live longer!!
    Its hard for people from pharma to understand this concept…

  61. sgcox says:

    There have been few recent posts here about the miserable state of drug development for DMD. It is an awful disease which affects very young. Find a cure and you add many, many years of life to your fellow humans. Why not spend all you $$$ on this noble course. After all we know EXACTLY the mechanism of disease. It surely must be easier task then nebulous “cure for life and age and death”.
    But wait, DMD does not affect Page and co personally, so why care ?
    Consider the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation goals now. That is the true and noble way to help humanity.

  62. Matt says:

    DMD affects about 1 in 7000 persons. A cure is not going to add many, many years of life to your typical fellow human. The ravages of old age affect more like 8 out of 10 persons, all those who don’t die young. I think that the Gates Foundation and the Googlers are both doing admirable things, at least compared to most billionaires.

  63. Twelve says:

    OK, I know I’m wasting my time adding to this thread, but here goes. Do any of those of you who think the Googlites deserve credit because they have the ‘courage’ to challenge conventional wisdom about biology and medicine know anything about modern biology, much less drug discovery? They are perfect examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and if you are in any way impressed, so are you.
    Our knowledge and understanding of biology and in particular how to perturb it through medicine, devices, surgery etc. has advanced enormously in the last 20, 50, 100 years, and we have made almost no progress in expanding the life span of adults. This has come about despite colossal investments from government, industry and private foundations, and the lifelong commitment of armies of frighteningly intelligent, wholly committed scientists, businesspeople, and officials.
    We can decrease suffering quite a bit, and many individuals have had their lives extended or their bodily functions restored as a result of what medicine has achieved. But most of the modest increase in adult life span has come about from preventative measures that were described in antiquity (eat moderately and with variety, remain active, cultivate and treasure friends and family, don’t drink much, accept with equanimity what you can’t change, etc).
    Consider that the longest lived human being, Jeanne Louise Calment, who lived to 122, achieved that span without minimal help from medicine (she only stopped smoking at 117, for Pete’s sake!), and despite all of our progress, there is no sign that the record she set in 1997 is anywhere close to being challenged. Look back at the Founding Fathers of the USA – many of these men lived into their seventies and eighties with no benefit from what we would call medicine at all.
    I don’t need to contrast this record with the orders of magnitude improvements that the human race has achieved in speed and reliability of transporttion, communication, information storage and data analysis compared to the pre-Industrial Age. This is the framework that the Googlites have, and in their arrogance they think that if they just turn their admirable minds to this task, it will succumb to their will. It won’t.
    With that said, I have no problem with them investing in this area, and like others, hope that their work, if well-supported for many years, will yield useful insights for other fields of medicine and biology. Perhaps it will even uncover powerful, inexpensive ways of treating infectious diseases prevalent only in developing countries! Without meaning to, they’d finally live up to their corporate slogan…

  64. STV says:

    @64 – thanks for prompting me to read Wikipedia on the Dunning-Kruger effect. Halfway through I realized that one of my co-workers has unknowingly been suffering from this condition for years – is anyone working on a cure?

  65. Anonymous says:

    @64 and others:
    You seem to be making a huge assumption that Google’s new biotech company will be full of software people who don’t know the difference between a cell and a protein.
    Remember, they have already appointed the founder of Genentech as their CEO, and I think he knows a thing or two, and has a better track record in biotech than you do!

  66. Omar says:

    I remember all the mockery RIM and Nokia directed at Apple when they announced their foray into phone making. Like the computer guys can just sweep in and offer better solutions! We’re seeing the same thing here. “I couldn’t do it, thus nobody can.”
    In reality, The company will be staffed by people with relevant knowledge. I doubt Page himself will be peering down the microscopes.

  67. mad says:

    IBM + ROCHE = 0
    Engineering != Research

  68. Anonymous says:

    Frankly, all the negativity about this endeavour makes me sick. The pharma industry is now full of “can’t do” people, it needs a good slap round the face by people who might be willing to bring in and try out a bet of fresh thinking, because they just might succeed.

  69. Dr. Manhattan says:

    “Gegen Den Tod Ist Keine Kräutlein Gewachsen”
    Always nice to see another James Blish and “Cities in Flight” fan. This 4 part epic SF dealt with the discovery of “Anti-agathics” which arrested aging.
    The compound screening process is pretty well described in this 1950’s era epic. Blish had worked at Pfizer for a while (and it appeared in the novel as “Pfitzner”).

  70. pgwu says:

    #69. Many people in pharma/biotech are probably more optimistic in nature or they do not stay that long. But they do have hands-on experience with biology, chemistry or pharmacology. Just because someone has an iDevice or a gToy does not mean he or she can do anything beyond the keyboard or touchscreen. I like the quote from someone working at Corning the maker of Gorilla glass “There are a lot of smart kids in Silicon Valley. I think they have zero percent chance to do what we do”. One should not discount a black swan event. But the amount of money and talent spent on social/ads vs that on improving human health is beyond craziness. It probably takes more than one person’s wealth to make some real progress in aging.

  71. sgcox says:

    Second to pgwu. There is no negativity here, just a weariness of so common militant arrogance. I made billions of $$$, I am so smart and know better than so called “experts”. I will now stop aging, cure cancer, etc etc…

  72. Anonymous says:

    @71: See 66

  73. sgcox says:

    Yes, Arthur Levinson was CEO of Genentech for 10+ years. Undoubtedly, we knows much more about the drug discovery than me or anybody else posting here. In all those years he preside over enormous amount more money spend on R&D – probably more than the current Google market value. Did he discover a cure for aging ? No. So why do you think we will do it this time with a tiny fraction of money already spend by his former company ? What was the problem before which will be magically solved this time ?

  74. sgcox says:

    OK, just checked Google market value. Genentech spend ~5% or even less of it, but still.

  75. Anonymous says:

    @74: I don’t expect or even want them to “cure” ageing, but I do expect them to make some revolutionary and otherwise very lucrative discoveries and breakthroughs in the process.
    As George W Merck said: “Remember the Three Princes of Serendip who went out looking for treasure? They didn’t find what they were looking for, but they kept finding things just as valuable. That’s serendipity, and our business [drugs] is full of it.”

  76. Omar says:

    @sgcox, Genetech developed a number of new drugs with that R&D expenditure! Is a company expected to somehow stumble upon a certain medicine by chance simply because they are spending money?

  77. Orion says:

    Perhaps he’s been talking too much lately with his new hire Kurzweil. Whatever they come up with, presumably the FDA is not really one of their barriers.
    As for Lewis Black, Borges said it years ago in “El Inmortal”. Those who achieve immortality will struggle to lose it.

  78. cancer_man says:

    “… at which point you start to run into that Cumaean Sibyl problem.”
    But the upside is that you could still blog 1000 years.
    “You’ll note that despite the possible lifespan enhancement with the sirtuin compounds, GSK never really mentioned this possibility in their takeover of Sirtris.”
    Well, Westphal did when interviewed on 60 Minutes, half a year after GSK bought Sirtris.

  79. cynical1 says:

    This new venture into anti-aging research is probably how the zombie apocalypse gets started. A genetically engineered virus that staves off aging…..with a few minor side effects. Listen to me now. Believe me later.

  80. MaryKaye says:

    John Wyndham’s classic SF novel _The Trouble With Lichen_ discusses an anti-aging drug found in a naturally occurring lichen. The discoverers fear that it will be suppressed by powerful social forces, so they market it, not as anti-aging, but as a beauty treatment–trying to get the rich and powerful on board that way before the whole story comes out.
    The suppression subplot doesn’t sound as plausible now, but the idea of marketing it as a beauty treatment does–seems like it’d end-run the difficulty of proving anti-aging effects. Beauty treatments don’t have to prove much beyond basic safety, as far as I know.

  81. passionlessDrone says:

    “But the upside is that you could still blog 1000 years.”
    Thank you for this.

  82. Amichel says:

    For those not in the know: the Cumaean Sibyl was a prophetess of Apollo. He agreed to grant her one wish in exchange for her virginity. She grabbed a handful of sand and asked to live 1 year for each grain of sand. Apollo granted her wish, but when she then rebuffed his sexual advances, he allowed her to age normally, as she did not wish for eternal youth as well. Her body gradually withered away, and grew smaller and smaller, untill she was kept in a jar. Trimalchio says “I myself once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in her jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die.'”

  83. ThinnFinn says:

    Interesting paper on the benefit of new medicines to society
    Apparantly, since 1986 the average annual increase in life expectancy of the entire population resulting from NCE launches is 2.93 weeks.
    Somehow I find that fairly impressive

  84. Slicer says:

    Somehow I don’t think the FDA will be a problem if whatever they develop actually works. Nobody at the FDA wants to die, either.

Comments are closed.