Monday 27th October 2014
The entry of Google’s billions into the field makes human trials more likely.
Late in 2013, Google brought its trove of cash into the game, founding a spin-off called the California Life Company (known as Calico) to specialize in longevity research. Six months after Calico’s charter was announced, Craig Venter, the biotech entrepreneur who in the 1990s conducted a dramatic race against government laboratories to sequence the human genome, also founded a start-up that seeks ways to slow aging.
In worms, genes called daf-2 and daf-16 can change in a way that causes the invertebrates to live twice as long as is natural, and in good vigor. A molecular biologist named Cynthia Kenyon, among the first hires at Calico, made that discovery more than two decades ago, when she was a researcher at UC San Francisco. By manipulating the same genes in mice, Kenyon has been able to cause them to live longer, with less cancer than mice in a control group: that is, with a better health span. The daf-16 gene is similar to a human gene called foxo3, a variant of which is linked to exceptional longevity. A drug that mimics this foxo3 variant is rumored to be among Calico’s initial projects.
A long time has passed since Kenyon’s eureka moment about worm genes, and she’s still far from proving that this insight can help people. But the tempo of the kind of work she does is accelerating. Twenty years ago, genetic sequencing and similar forms of DNA research were excruciatingly time-consuming. New techniques and equipment have altered that: for instance, one Silicon Valley lab-services firm, Sequetech, advertises, “Go from [cell] colony to sequence” in a day. The accelerating pace of genetic-information gathering may come in handy for health-span research.
As recently as a generation ago, it would have seemed totally crazy to suppose that aging could be “cured.” Now curing aging seems, well, only somewhat crazy – Gregg Easterbrook
Wednesday 18th March 2015
Google Ventures Funding Life Extension Efforts
Bill Maris has $425 million to invest this year, and the freedom to invest it however he wants. He’s looking for companies that will slow aging, reverse disease, and extend life.
“If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes,” Bill Maris says one January afternoon in Mountain View, California. The president and managing partner of Google Ventures just turned 40, but he looks more like a 19-year-old college kid at midterm.
Here’s where you really figure out who Bill Maris is: on his bookshelf. There’s a fat text called Molecular Biotechnology: Principles and Applications of Recombinant DNA. There’s a well-read copy of Biotechnology: Applying the Genetic Revolution. And a collection of illustrations by Fritz Kahn, a German physician who was among the first to depict the human body as a machine.
Wedged among these is a book that particularly stands out to anyone interested in living to 500. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, published in 2005, is the seminal work by futurist Ray Kurzweil. He famously predicted that in 2045, humankind will have its Terminator moment: The rise of computers will outpace our ability to control them. To keep up, we will radically transform our biology via nanobots and other machines that will enhance our anatomy and our DNA, changing everything about how we live and die.
“It will liberate us from our own limitations,” says Maris, who studied neuroscience at Middlebury College and once worked in a biomedical lab at Duke University. Kurzweil is a friend. Google hired him to help Maris and other Googlers understand a world in which machines surpass human biology. This might be a terrifying, dystopian future to some. To Maris, it’s business.
This is where he hopes to find, and fund, the next generation of companies that will change the world, or possibly save it. “We actually have the tools in the life sciences to achieve anything that you have the audacity to envision,” he says. “I just hope to live long enough not to die.”
Google puts huge resources into looking for what’s coming next. It spends millions on projects like Google X, the internal lab that developed Google Glass and is working on driverless cars. In January, the company made a $900 million investment in Elon Musk’s SpaceX. In 2014, it started Google Capital to invest in later-stage technology companies. Maris’s views on the intersection of technology and medicine fit in well here: Google has spent hundreds of millions of dollars backing a research center, called Calico, to study how to reverse aging, and Google X is working on a pill that would insert nanoparticles into our bloodstream to detect disease and cancer mutations.
With Google’s money and clout behind him, Maris has a huge amount of freedom. He can, and does, go after Silicon Valley’s most-sought-after startups. Uber, Nest, and Cloudera are among the firm’s big wins. Maris doesn’t intend to stop pursuing these kinds of deals. But he has other ambitions, too. “There are plenty of people, including us, that want to invest in consumer Internet, but we can do more than that,” he says. He now has 36 percent of the fund’s assets invested in life sciences, up from 6 percent in 2013.
“There are a lot of billionaires in Silicon Valley, but in the end, we are all heading to the same place,” Maris says. “If given the choice between making a lot of money or finding a way to make people live longer, what do you choose?”
“We aren’t trying to gain a few yards,” Maris says. “We are trying to win the game. And part of it is that it is better to live than to die.” – Katrina Brooker