Following its self-driving cars and wearable devices projects, Google is now set to draw on its data analytics expertise to help combat aging.
At a time when the so-called ‘regenerative medicine’ industry is estimated at close to $1.6 billion and anti-aging products make up one of the few markets which remain resistant to economic cycles, Google is investing in long-term basic research in an attempt to achieve results with real impact in the medical field. The company has already delivered itsFlu Trends service, which enables forecasting of flu epidemics by combining geolocation data and research based on key words. Now the search engine giant is continuing to build out a service ecosystem, using the masses of data it collects to help improve public health and underpin medical research. With its latest project – the California Life Company, or ‘Calico’ – Google is looking to increase average human lifespan by 20 to 100 years! Given Google’s status as a groundbreaker, this new move might well encourage other Internet players to get interested in the ‘life-extension’ industry as well.
Making good use of available data
Google’s expertise in this area resides in its capacity to gather and process large quantities of wide-ranging relevant data through its core business – its search engine – and the various adjacent activities and services which it has developed over the years. As Harry Glorikian, founder of life sciences consulting firm Scientia Advisors puts it, this is “not just one set of data, but multiple forms: search data, GPS data, all sorts of other pieces, electronic breadcrumbs that you produce – all out there to get a picture of you.” This data could be paired with each person's genome; a partial genome can be mapped today using the 23andme service, another Google research investment. The objective of the programme is to directly attack the causes of chronic illness, aging, and – at the most basic level – cell non-regeneration. Google is looking long term and is in a position to take advantage of the immediate and growing availability of essential data, while many laboratories such as GSK invest millions of dollars a year in applied research before abandoning a particular line of enquiry under pressure from investors.
Data protection: clarification will be needed
Calico could for example draw inspiration from the Human Genome Project,comparing healthy elderly people’s genomes with those of people of similar age but in deteriorating health. According to Daniel Kraft, Chair of the Medicine & Neuroscience track at NASA Research Park-based learning institution Singularity University, which has collaborated many times with Google on medical research projects, these new personal data-hungry services are likely in the near future to confront society with a Faustian dilemma. As the availability of masses of data, helping to ensure more effective research and treatment, will clearly be of benefit to everyone, how far should we insist on, or relax, data protection and privacy rules? We are also now seeing related avenues of progress arising from the ‘Quantified Self’ industry. California-based Vital Connect has developed connected biometric sensors to gather the most accessible human data. Calico is in any case likely to benefit from the recent rollout of the US Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’), which looks set to substantially increase the number of US citizens undergoing medical tests on a regular basis and subscribing to a medical insurance scheme.