Calico Labs is hoping to outsmart death. Google’s $1.5 Billion dollar biotech startup has been cloaked in secrecy, until recently. This report reveals what the ultra-secretive health venture has been up to lately. With commentary by David Botstein, Calico Labs’ Chief Scientific Officer. This article first appeared on LongevityFacts.com, follow us on Facebook, Google+ or Reddit. Author: Brady Hartman.
In 2013, tech giant Google announced with great fanfare, the creation of Calico Labs, an acronym for California Life Company. The startup’s stated mission is to
“devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.”
Bill Maris is the former head of Google Ventures and the man who proposed the formation of Calico Labs. Maris has said that’s possible that people could live “for 500 years.”
Critics of Calico Labs
According to many in the scientific community, Calico Labs isn’t playing by the rules.
The chief criticism of Calico Labs is that the biotech company is ultra-secretive. The scientific field is built on the principles of openness. By sharing discoveries, researchers can help each other and advance science as a whole.
Since the media whirlwind ended, Calico Labs has been cloaked in secrecy. It’s not unusual for new startups to be secretive during their early years and Calico Labs is no exception. In fact, until recently, the startup has been more secretive than most, and that has frustrated fellow aging researchers.
There are a few potential explanations for the secrecy. The chief theory is that Calico Labs is just waiting for a big reveal. In December of last year, MIT Technology Review interviewed David Botstein, Calico Labs’ Chief Scientific Officer (CSO), who offered an explanation:
“Botstein says a ‘best case’ scenario is that Calico will have something profound to offer the world in 10 years.” – MIT Technology Review
“There will be nothing to say for a very long time, except for some incremental scientific things. That is the problem.” – David Botstein, CSO, Calico Labs
The Bell Labs of Aging Research
MIT’s Technology Review also said that Calico Labs’ mission is to “build a Bell Labs of aging research.” Adding that the startup
“hopes to extend the human life span by coming up with a breakthrough as important, and as useful to humanity, as the transistor has been.”
Bell Labs has often been referred to as the “The Idea Factory.” Bell Labs researchers invented the laser, the transistor, the charge-coupled device (CCD), information theory, the UNIX operating system, and the programming languages C, and C++. Researchers at Bell Labs have received a total of eight Nobel prizes.
What’s Calico Labs Been Doing Lately?
On its website, Calico Labs states that has built an interdisciplinary team to tackle the problem of aging. To this end, they’ve hired expertise and formed partnerships with companies from a wide variety of fields, including basic research, drug development, molecular biology, computational biology, medicine, and genetics.
Calico Labs is not just a pharmaceutical company, a technology company, nor is it involved in basic research.
In fact, it is all three rolled into one. Calico Labs has linked three or more separate fields, joining the massive computational power of computers with basic research, genomics and drug development.
Calico Labs specifically mentions machine learning, and the firm has hired a lot of experts with expertise in artificial intelligence.
The Google healthcare startup is doing many things, one of which is ratcheting up its expertise and skills by hiring bright people and by forming partnerships with a host of unlikely partners.
The year after Google launched Calico Labs, it teamed up with the biopharmaceutical company AbbVie. The two firms will jointly invest up to $1.5 billion in developing age-related therapies. Google co-founder Larry Page said,
“With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives.”
Calico Labs has since updated its mission statement to the following:
“to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan,”
Drug Development At Calico Labs
It seems that Calico Labs is now focused on drug development, as the startup has formed many partnerships with drug companies. A recent news release from the healthcare startup announced a partnership with C4 Therapeutics to work on developing drugs for “diseases of aging,” such as type 2 diabetes and cancer.
Calico Labs also announced a partnership with University of California start-up QB3, a biotech incubator. QB3 stands for the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences. The startup is a hub for “entrepreneurship in the life sciences.” The organization also describes themselves as a “research institute combined with the elements of a startup accelerator. “
Calico Labs Inking Deals With Researchers
Calico Labs hasn’t been idle these past four years. It has been busy inking deals with research institutions such as the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Broad Institute of Harvard University and, most notably, the Buck Institute, a leading research center in the field of longevity science.
Understanding the Basic Biology Of Aging
To better understand the aging process, Calico Labs partnered with Jackson Laboratory; a nonprofit biomedical research institution focused on the basic biology of aging. The multi-year collaboration will focus on applying mouse genetics to the study of aging.
According to the press release announcing the collaboration, Jackson Laboratory and Calico Labs will jointly develop research on the genetics of health and longevity. The joint team hopes to identify genes associated with healthy aging. Calico Labs is providing all of the funding and has the option to obtain exclusive rights to discoveries made in the collaborative projects.
Professor Gary Churchill of the Jackson Laboratory said,
“In partnership with Calico, we are bringing a genetic approach to discovering the mechanisms of aging, with the goal of identifying interventions that can increase maximal life span and improve health in late life.”
David Botstein, Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) of Calico Labs and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences said,
“The Jackson Laboratory is the world’s premier institution for conducting sophisticated mouse genetic studies and therefore the ideal collaborator for the advanced studies we have designed together”
The goal of the partnership was to better understand the basic biology of the aging process. Jackson Laboratory’s research expertise is in the basic biology of aging. Botstein added,
“We are excited about the prospects for learning about mouse healthspan and lifespan in models potentially applicable to human aging.”
Human Genetics Research at Calico Labs
Calico Labs is also researching the genetics of aging and how it causes chronic diseases in humans. The start-up collaborated with the firm AncestryDNA to use the firm’s rich genetic database. Together they will investigate the role of genetics in families with unusual longevity. AncestryDNA’s resources include data from millions of family trees and over one million genetic samples. The Google biotech startup will use and AncestryDNA’s proprietary databases, algorithms, and other tools. Hopefully, this big data analysis will lead to the development of new drugs that extend healthy lifespan. Calico Labs will develop and market any new therapeutics which arise from this research.
Calico Labs Licenses NAMPT Enhancer
The Google startup has licensed experimental drug compounds called P7C3 analogs which are involved in enhancing the activity of the enzyme nicotinamide phosphoribosyltransferase (NAMPT).
NAMPT plays a role in nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide biosynthesis. Researchers have shown that P7C3 compounds prevent age-related neurodegeneration in animal models.
Modulators of Integrated Stress Response
Calico Labs has partnered with Peter Walter and his lab at UCSF to develop ISR technology. The Integrated Stress Response (ISR) is a set of biochemical pathways which are activated in response to stress. The research has the potential to solve the problem of age-related cognitive decline.
Calico Labs is Validating Aging Theories
Another criticism of Calico Labs is that the startup is disregarding some firmly held beliefs in the field of aging.
The aging community has firmly decided that certain biochemical pathways are essential to aging. For example, one pathway involves insulin, and the other involves mTOR. Longevity researchers have already identified two anti-aging drugs, called geroprotectors that target those pathways. Metformin targets insulin (and to some extent mTOR), and the drug rapamycin targets its namesake, the mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR). Research studies have concluded that rapamycin extends lifespan in mice, and metformin extends lifespan in diabetics, by preventing cancer and warding off heart disease. In the longevity field, metformin and rapamycin are considered sure bets. In fact, the TAME Study is $65 million dollar trial to test the anti-aging effects of metformin. The other leading geroprotector rapamycin is also involved in clinical trials.
Calico Labs, however, is not taking anything for granted. Instead, the startup is revisiting these ‘proven concepts’ using the newest technology. In the interview with MIT Technology Review, David Botstein, the CSO of Calico Labs said,
“A lot of our effort is in trying to verify or falsify some of the theories”
Botstein added that much of the science is best consumed “with a dose of sodium chloride.”
What Calico Labs Hasn’t Been Doing
Researchers known as geroscientists have flocked to the hottest areas of longevity research, including topics such as researching stem cell decline and developing stem cell therapies; investigating DNA damage; studying the human epigenome and uncovering genetic aging mechanisms in the brain as well as epigenetic aging clocks in the body, and researching telomere therapy. To help us live longer lives, researchers are also developing geroprotectors such as metformin and rapamycin; or the promising compounds called senolytics. Longevity researchers are also flocking to the up and coming research areas of microbiome alteration, calorie restriction, and the Fasting Mimicking Diet.
Many in the longevity research community Calico’s failure to follow the herd as a mistake.
Calico Labs isn’t involved in these areas to any great extent. Instead, it is making a heavy bet on basic biology. The firm is using less-conventional animal models in its laboratory research, such as the naked mole rat.
The startup said it needs to understand why do we age and how do we age before it finds a solution to the aging problem.
Technology Development At Calico Labs
Calico Labs is laying the technology groundwork for the big breakthrough.
Calico Labs is using machine learning tools to gain a deeper understanding of the complex biological processes of aging. The Google startup is employing machine learning tools for analyzing biological and medical datasets. The team will design experiments and develop data sets to provide a deeper understanding of the nature of longevity. The scientists at Calico Labs are hoping this new understanding of the fundamental processes of aging will lead to the development of new drugs that extend healthy lifespan.
For example, Calico Labs built a machine that decodes a human genome from scratch. To test the new system, the researchers decoded a human genome, without help from the official genome map. After the calculation was done, the researchers checked the genome map, just to see if it got the right answer. They did.
With their newly developed genomic mapping skills, the Google startup is also mapping the genome of the naked mole rat to understand why the rodent lives such an exceptionally long life.
Calico Labs is building something more than a drug development company. They are building healthcare’s version of Bell Labs, a research institution that once the place for the best and brightest to work. According to a report in TIME.com, the online magazine
“In a time before Google, Bell Labs sufficed as the country’s intellectual utopia It was where the future, which is what we now happen to call the present, was conceived and designed. ”
Despite the criticisms, one thing is clear. The reigning era of Bell Labs is over. The countries intellectual leadership now belongs to Google, and more specifically Calico Labs.
Google isn’t the only high tech company getting into biotech. The life sciences arena has become a hot topic among high tech firms, and even IBM is getting into the act. The tech giant plans to study the human microbiome and its role in autoimmune disorders.
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