Building muscle at Calico, Google’s health moonshot

Google DNAGoogle made waves in September when it launched its health research arm Calico, led by Arthur Levinson, the former CEO of Roche’s US biotech company Genentech.

Calico has now announced the hire of four heavy-hitters from the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.  Not surprisingly, three of them have connections with Genentech.  Dr Hal Barron was chief medical officer of Roche, which acquired Genentech in 2009 for $50bn.  He becomes president of R&D at Calico.

Dr David Botstein, who joins Calico as chief scientific officer, was VP of Genentech in the late 1980s before moving to academia at Princeton, and Dr Bob Cohen leaves his post as senior oncology fellow at Genentech for a fellowship at Calico.

The other new recruit is Dr Cynthia Kenyon, who joins Calico as senior scientific adviser.  She is currently a professor at University of California, San Francisco, and is best known for research demonstrating that ageing is a regulated process controlled by specific genes.

In classic Google style, Calico looks set to address the most basic science of ageing and death.  Dr Botstein says, “I start with the premise that we understand … a tiny fraction of what’s written in our genomes.  We understand a tiny fraction of what parts of medicine work well, and what parts are just tradition. … The value of basic science, of course, is once we do understand [it] we might be able to do something.”

Google’s willingness to adopt radical and controversial approaches was demonstrated last year when it hired Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and artificial intelligence proponent, as director of engineering.  Many people are watching with keen interest to see whether Calico will now hire Aubrey de Grey, an English gerontologist and author of Ending Ageing, who thinks the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born.  When Calico was announced in September, de Grey welcomed it by paraphrasing Churchill’s phrase about the end of the beginning of the fight.

No announcements from either party yet.  “We invite you to stay tuned over the following months as we continue to build out our team of exceptional scientists and clinicians,” said Levinson.

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