In 2013, Google announced a new research and development company called Calico, or the California Life Company. Lead by acclaimed former Genentech chief executive Arthur Levinson, Calico’s mission is nothing short of to tackle aging. By using biotech to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan, they plan to “devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.”


Like many of Google’s moon shot projects, Calico started out as a crazy idea, received some substantial investment, and has since remained pretty hushed up. In early 2014 Calico partnered with pharmaceutical company AbbVie, agreeing to co-invest up to $1.5 billion and build a new R&D facility in the Bay Area. While this brought important outside validation to Calico, the project’s long-term focus means we probably won’t see any clear outcomes for a while.

Calico has announced a series of partnerships, most recently with AncestryDNA to investigate human heredity of lifespan. An April press release announced another partnership with the Buck Institute, the world’s foremost independent research organization devoted to understanding the connection between normal aging and chronic disease. This collaboration gives Calico the opportunity to identify, fund and support research ranging from basic biology to potential therapies for age-related diseases.

Calico’s moon shot research on aging raises some ethical questions. First of all, should we really invest in immortality research when millions of people are dying from curable diseases? As Bill Gates said on Reddit earlier this year, “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer.” The WHO reports that in 2013, 1.6 million people died from tuberculosis, a disease that is treatable and curable. How far would $1.5 billion go towards curing people with TB?

A similar argument can be made about the health impacts of basic improvements in sanitation, hygiene and drinking-water. According to the UN’s recently released Sustainable Development Goals, 1.8 billion people still use fecally contaminated drinking water, and each day nearly 1,000 children die due to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrhoeal diseases. This argument isn’t that aging research isn’t important, but rather that influential companies with money to spend could be helping to prevent millions of deaths related to health problems we already know how to solve.

Despite the complicated ethics of investing in immortality research, we all know someone who’s been affected by aging related disease. The WHO estimates 8.2 million cancer deaths worldwide in 2012, and the number of cases is expected to rise by 70% over the next two decades.

So maybe in twenty years we’ll all be thanking Calico for their foresight, having seen that predicted rise of cancer deaths taper off. Or maybe Calico is just about letting rich people live longer, and most of those 8 million will never benefit from their research. At the end of the day, Calico is at work understanding the biology of lifespan, and it will be interesting to see what they come up with. As Bill Gates said, “It would be nice to live longer.”

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