Monthly Archives: September 2013

REPOST: Tech titans form biotechnology company

People of all ages have always been searching for ways to be healthy and live longer. In line with this, biotechnology’s big men gathered together to announce a joint venture that addresses this concern. Read the details in this article from The New York Times.

Silicon Valley has an obsession with immortality, and not just as science fiction. Many people here say they believe that the day when technology makes it possible to live forever is just around the corner.

On Wednesday, some of the tech world’s most formidable players announced an effort to get closer to that point, with a new biotechnology company to fight the aging process and the diseases that accompany it.

The company, Calico, was conceived and backed by Google, whose co-founder and chief executive, Larry Page, portrayed it as one of the company’s long-shot projects, like self-driving cars. Arthur D. Levinson, 63, the former chief executive of Genentech and the chairman of Apple, agreed to be the chief executive and is also an investor.

“This was just so out of the box that I instantly got extremely excited about it,” Dr. Levinson said in an interview. He said he had turned down other offers to run companies since stepping down as chief executive of Genentech in 2009, after the company’s acquisition by Roche.

Left: John G. Mabanglo/European Pressphoto Agency; Right: Roche
Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and chief executive, and Arthur D. Levinson, a former chief executive of Genentech and the chairman of Apple. Image Source: www.nytimes.com

Dr. Levinson said that at first Calico would be “more of an institute certainly than a pharmaceutical company,” focusing on basic research aimed at picking apart the biological mechanisms behind aging.

He said much of that early research might be done by providing money to academic scientists, though Calico might also hire its own researchers. Dr. Levinson, who is Calico’s only employee for now, would not say when, or even if, Calico hoped to develop a drug to fight aging.

An anti-aging drug has been a long-sought goal, both by some consumers and by companies, as well as by various hucksters. Rather than treat each particular disease, retarding aging could potentially prevent or slow the development of numerous diseases.

But companies that have sprung up to try this have tended to suffer from lack of longevity themselves. Elixir Pharmaceuticals, a company started by academic experts, was shut down. Another company, Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, was acquired by GlaxoSmithKline for $720 million in 2008, but has been downsized somewhat.

Dr. Levinson said Calico hoped to surmount those issues by taking a long-term approach to better understanding the mechanisms involved, without the need to turn a quick profit.

“Larry and I share a sense of sadness that so few companies are willing to make extremely long-term bets,” he said.

He declined to say how much money was being invested in Calico, though he hinted it would be in the tens of millions of dollars. He also declined to say whether there were other investors.

Some anti-aging researchers, who have been suffering from tight federal research spending, welcomed Calico’s entrance.

“I think that if Google succeeds, this would be their greatest gift to humanity,” said David Sinclair, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Sirtris. “I’m sure they don’t mean that they will defeat death, but if they were to give people five or 10 years of healthy life, that would change the world.”

Under Dr. Levinson, Genentech developed blockbuster cancer drugs and a reputation for allowing scientists to pursue their interests, something he said he hoped to replicate at Calico.

One issue Calico could confront is that the Food and Drug Administration does not recognize aging as a disease, so drugs would have to be approved for a specific disease. But Dr. Levinson said that if an anti-aging drug were proven to work, the agency would most likely change its mind.

He said Calico was exploring a partnership with Roche, whose board he sits on. He also said that Calico would consider using Google’s computing power.

Calico stands for California Life Company. “But if you’re thinking about cats, we like the old saying that they have nine lives,” Dr. Levinson wrote in a post on the social network Google Plus.

Though Google assures wary shareholders that these projects are small compared with the core business, the company is working to create an image of itself as the leader of innovation and long-term thinking in the industry.

Mr. Page wrote in his own Google Plus post, “Don’t be surprised if we invest in projects that seem strange or speculative compared with our existing Internet businesses.”

Google’s founders are involved in Singularity University, part of the belief system that humans and machines will at some point merge, making old age and death meaningless. Google has ventured into health before, including with company investments and personal ones related to the founders’ health issues and a failed effort at online medical records.

Dr. Levinson said that Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, was the first outsider he told about his participation in Calico. Mr. Cook, he said, listened quietly for a few minutes and then said, “It’s not very many people who have the opportunity to reverse time.”

Claire Cain Miller reported from San Francisco, and Andrew Pollack from Los Angeles.

For years, Janique Goff has been supporting companies that promote eco-friendly technologies and healthy living. Join her in preserving Mother Earth by following this Twitter page.

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REPOST: Infectious Disease Could Become More Common in a Warmer World — Especially for Plants and Animals

Bryan Walsh writes about an ominous danger faced by a planet on the brink of abrupt climate change: the spread of infectious diseases among many living things.

Dengue fever, carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, will become a bigger threat as the climate warms Image source: Time.com
Dengue fever, carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, will become a bigger threat as the climate warms
Image source: Time.com

The venerable Science magazine has a special issue out today on climate change. Some of the content is free, and it’s well worth checking out. That includes an article on one of the most important and perplexing areas in global-warming research: the possible connection between a changing climate and a growing threat from infectious disease.

It’s been known for a while that warming temperatures could help certain diseases. Malaria, which kills about 650,000 people a year, thrives in the hot and humid areas where the Anopheles mosquito can live. As the climate warms, the territory where the mosquito and the malaria parasite will be able to live will likely expand, putting more people at risk. Already dengue fever, another mosquito-borne tropical disease, has re-established itself in the Florida Keys, where it was wiped out decades ago. Tropical diseases will loom that much larger in a warmer world, as host-parasite cycles accelerate. In the Arctic, which is warming faster than any other region on the planet, higher temperatures are allowing parasites like the lungworm, which afflicts musk oxen, to develop faster and be transmitted over longer periods.

But as the Science study — by American and Canadian researchers — points out, the connection between climate change and disease is actually a lot more complicated than that. It’s true that warmer temperatures may be helping dengue fever to return to the Florida Keys, but the disease was initially vanquished in the 20th century not because the climate was cooler, but because public-health officials systematically controlled mosquito populations, cutting off the spread of the dengue virus. Both Singapore and Burma are tropical countries well within the malaria belt, but rich, urban Singapore has largely eliminated malaria, while the disease is still common in impoverished, rural Burma. (I should know — I contracted a mild case of malaria while reporting along the Thai-Burmese border in 2005.) Health care infrastructure and wealth — or lack it — have a lot more to do with the spread of infectious disease than climate change does, and that will continue to be the case even as the globe warms.

Still, the study points out that climate change will be a major factor in the spread of infectious disease in the future — and the impact is likely to be even greater in wildlife and agricultural systems, which aren’t likely to be able to react as quickly as human beings can. In the Caribbean, where I was just on a reporting trip, warmer water temperatures have stressed vulnerable corals, which then leaves them less able to fight off infections by pathogenic fungi and bacteria. Whole species of coral in the Caribbean have been lost thanks to the rapid spread of disease — and since corals are the framework builders of the marine ecosystems, other species can quickly follow them into oblivion.

As co-author Richard Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., put it in a statement:

Biodiversity loss is a well-established consequence of climate change. In a number of infectious disease systems, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus, biodiversity loss is tied to greater pathogen transmission and increased human risk. Moving forward, we need models that are sensitive to both direct and indirect effects of climate change on infectious disease.

Climate change is likely to impact infectious disease just as it will impact other areas of life. Human beings — especially relatively rich ones — will muddle through, adapting to a warmer, more parasite-ridden world. Plants and animals, though, won’t be able to adapt as fast, or perhaps at all. Good thing we don’t need them. Right?

Janique Goff stands by the belief that the effects of abrupt anthropogenic climate change are nigh, and should concern people from every station in life. Visit this Twitter page for more updates on