‘Google’s War Against Aging’ (WSJ 9/4/14)

The announcement that Google‘s Life Science spin-off Calico LLC is joining up with AbbVie in an anti-aging R&D effort into which each will put an initial investment of $250 million (and up to half a billion more each) raises some interesting issues and questions. In no particular order:

1) The two major foci cited are neurodegenerative disease and cancer, which gives CNS the kind of high profile that has been missing from several Big Pharma companies. It was somewhat amusing, in a black-humored way, that the WSJ reporters stated that “the drug industry has had a mixed record in its efforts to significantly improve treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”  Mixed? The drug industry aspires to eventually have a ‘mixed record’, currently the more accurate adjectives include candidates like ‘abysmal’ and ‘horrific.’ Calling it ‘mixed’ is like saying that Vladimir Putin has a ‘mixed’ record when it comes to humility.

2) Entering into a 50/50 partnership with AbbVie is an interesting choice on Calico’s part–and on AbbVie’s, given that their history is one of ‘not playing well with others.’ Calico is not being managed by lightweights, so AbbVie’s penchant for control rather than collaboration is going to undergo a cultural stress test. On the other hand, both Calico and AbbVie have the reputation of being quite secretive, so we expect to hear very little of substance for a very long time. The rumor that AbbVie employees are required to have cyanide fillings that can be remotely-activated if they say anything of informational merit remains just that, a rumor.

3) If  the ‘War against aging’ is operationalized as a life-extension campaign, it may be a misguided goal. While we stand with our Boomer peers in claiming that the Boomer generation is a very special generation that deserves immortality; from a Millennial resource-allocation viewpoint, extending life chronologically would be an unwelcome development. In NeuroPerspective‘s review of Alzheimer’s, we noted that “Success in delaying that (Alzheimer’s) onset…may delay the advent of incapacitating dementia symptoms for a significant portion of the at risk population towards, or beyond, the end of life. If the process can be slowed, fewer people will outlive their functional capabilities, saving them and the society within which they live from the indignities and costs of severe dementia… This assumes, of course, that modern medicine does not further complicate the task by extending the average lifespan beyond its current point, an assumption that may be more safely rooted in the inevitable shift towards the actuarial allocation of finite medical resources, than upon any retreat on the part of medical science itself.”

In other words, extending independent functioning is likely to be a reasonably good thing, extending life span might not be…

4) Finally, the sheer scale of the AbbVie/Calico endeavor has some advantages, but has a potential downside. They will have the resources to attract scientists from almost anywhere, which could put some small-scale, independent R&D projects in jeopardy, as their initiators/sponsors are recruited to Calico tasks. A sidebar in the September issue of NeuroPerspective noted that the hyperconsolidation of resources in a few entities and geographic areas risks losing creativity and innovation–and this is another example of a situation where scale may be counterproductive.

 

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