Google fights aging

Details are thin at this point, but Google co-founder Larry Page has announced Calico, a company that will focus on “the challenge of aging and associated diseases.” Art Levinson, former Genentech CEO, will be Calico’s Chief Executive.

Art and I are excited about tackling aging and illness. These issues affect us all—from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families. And while this is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people.

The front cover of the September 30 issue of TIME, which has an exclusive interview with Page, makes an apt point: that the search giant’s plan to extend human lifespan ”would be crazy – if it weren’t Google”. For years, the anti-aging movement and its big players, notably Aubrey de Grey’s SENS, have been members of the transhumanist vanguard and little else1, not noticed or supported by mainstream scientists. Part of that is down to stubbornness, poor marketing and bad PR, and part down to status quo bias on the part of everyone else. I’ve wondered what the anti-aging movement will do to be taken seriously. This is how it happens. Getting someone as influential and moneyed as Google on board is the credibility and funding boost longevity science needs. Fight Aging! has a good analysis of the ways this one could go (ranging from Calico backing very conservative anti-aging efforts to it directly funding rejuvenative medicine) but offers a caution:

This effort by Google has just started, and we have no idea how it [will] turn out. Google doesn’t have a good track record for going above and beyond the safe, staid norm when it comes to philanthropy. Their initiatives in that respect have generally been very mainstream, very similar to what other factions of Big Philanthropy are up to, and very unlikely to change the world. … That said, I will also be surprised if significant money fails to flow from Google to SENS by 2018 or so[.]

History is littered with the carcasses of wealthy men who suddenly became aware of their mortality and tried to fight it. But the study of the biology of aging has matured hugely in the last two decades. Maybe this marks a turning point in biogerontology’s story.


  1.  This isn’t necessarily a criticism. But biogerontology’s aims need mainstream scientific recognition if it’s to be seen as a serious field and funded commensurately.