Google’s Calico venture, the company’s out-there move into anti-aging therapy, has made the news by signing a deal with AbbVie (the company most of us will probably go on thinking of as Abbott). That moves them into the real world for sure, from the perspective of the rest of the drug industry, so it’s worth taking another look at them. (It’s also worth noting that Craig Venter is moving into this area, too, with a company called Human Longevity. Maybe as the tech zillionaires age we’ll see a fair amount of this sort of thing).
On one level, I applaud Google’s move. There’s a lot of important work to be done in the general field of aging, and there are a lot of signs that human lifespan can be hacked, for want of a better word. The first thought some people have when they think of longer lifespan is that it could be an economic disaster. After all, a huge percentage of our healthcare money is already spent in the last years of life as it is – what if we make that period longer still? But it’s not just sheer lifespan – aging is the motor behind a lot of diseases, making them more like to crop up and more severe when they do. The dream (which may be an unattainable one) is for longer human lifespans, in good health, without the years of painful decline that so many people experience. Even if we can’t quite manage that, an improvement over the current state of things would be welcome. If people stay productive longer, and spend fewer resources on disabling conditions as they age, we can come out ahead on the deal rather than wondering how we could possibly afford it.
Google and AbbVie are both putting $250 million into starting a research site somewhere in the Bay area (and given the state of biotech out there, compared to a few years ago, it’ll be a welcome addition). If things go well, each of them have also signed up to contribute as much as $500 million more to the joint venture, but we’ll see if that ever materializes. What, though, are they going to be doing out there?
Details are still scarce, but FierceBiotechIT says that “a picture of an IT-enabled, omics-focused operation has emerged from media reports and early hiring at the startup”. That sounds pretty believable, given Google’s liking for (and ability to handle) huge piles of data. It also sounds like something that Larry Page and Sergey Brin would be into, given their past investments. But that still doesn’t tell us much: any serious work in this area could be described in that fashion. We’ll have to use up a bit more of our current lifespans before things get any clearer.
So I mentioned above that on one level I like this – what, you might be asking, is the other level on which I don’t? My worry is what I like to call the Andy Grove Fallacy. I applied that term to Grove’s “If we can improve microprocessors so much, what’s holding you biotech people back”? line of argument. It’s also a big part of the (in)famous “Can a Biologist Fix a Radio” article (PDF), which I find useful and infuriating in about equal proportions. The Andy Grove Fallacy is the confusion between man-made technology (like processor chips and radios) and biological systems. They’re both complex, multifunctional, miniaturized, and made up of thousands and thousands of components, true. But the differences are more important than the similarities.
For one thing, human-designed objects are one hell of a lot easier for humans to figure out. With human-designed tech, we were around for all the early stages, and got to watch as we made all of it gradually more and more complicated. We know it inside out, because we discovered it and developed it, every bit. Living cells, well, not so much. The whole system is plunked right down in front of us, so the only thing we can do is reverse-engineer, and we most definitely don’t have all the tools we need to do a good job of that. We don’t even know what some of those tools might be yet. Totally unexpected things keep turning up as we look closer, and not just details that we somehow missed – I’m talking about huge important regulatory systems (like all the microRNA pathways) that we never even realized existed. No one’s going to find anything like that in an Intel chip, of that we can be sure.
And that’s because of the other big difference between human technology and biochemistry: evolution. We talk about human designs “evolving”, but that’s a very loose usage of the word. Real biological evolution is another thing entirely. It’s not human, not at all, and it takes some time to get your head around that. Evolution doesn’t do things the way that we would. It has no regard for our sensibilities whatsoever. It’s a blind idiot tinkerer, with no shame and no sense of the bizarre, and it only asks two questions, over and over: “Did you live? Did you reproduce? Well, OK then.” Living systems are full of all kinds of weird, tangled, hacked-together stuff, layer upon layer of it, doing things that we don’t understand and can’t do ourselves. There is no manual, no spec sheet, no diagram – unless we write it.
So people coming in from the world of things that humans built are in for a shock when they find out how little is known about biology. That’s the shock that led to that Radio article, I think, and the sooner someone experiences it, the better. When Google’s Larry Page is quoted saying things like this, though, I wonder if it’s hit him yet:
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. 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.”
The problem is, cancer – unrestrained cellular growth – is intimately tied up with aging. Part of that is statistical. If you live long enough, you will surely come down with some form of cancer, whether it’s nasty enough to kill you or benign enough for you to die of something else. But another connection is deeper, because the sorts of processes that keep cells tied down so that they don’t take off and try to conquer the world are exactly the ones, in many cases, that we’re going to have to tinker with to extend our lifespans. There are a lot of tripwires out there, and many of them we don’t even know about yet. I’d certainly assume that Larry Page’s understanding of all this is deeper than gets conveyed in a magazine article, but he (and the other Google folks) will need to watch themselves as they go on. Hubris often gets rewarded in Silicon Valley – after all, it’s made by humans, marketed to humans, and is rewarded by human investors. But in the biomedical field, hubris can sometimes attract lightning bolts like you would not believe.