He watched his brother die from a cancer that no drug could cure. Now one of the world’s most renowned cancer researchers says it’s time for Plan B. ... The answers Bert Vogelstein needed and feared were in the blood sample. ... Vogelstein is among the most highly cited scientists in the world. He was described, in the 1980s, as having broken into “the cockpit of cancer” after he and coworkers at Johns Hopkins University showed for the first time exactly how a series of DNA mutations, adding up silently over decades, turn cells cancerous. Damaged DNA, he helped prove, is the cause of cancer. ... Now imagine you could see these mutations—see cancer itself—in a vial of blood. Nearly every type of cancer sheds DNA into the bloodstream, and Vogelstein’s laboratory at Johns Hopkins has developed a technique, called a “liquid biopsy,” that can find the telltale genetic material. ... The technology is made possible by instruments that speedily sequence DNA in a blood sample so researchers can spot tumor DNA even when it’s present in trace amounts. The Hopkins scientists, working alongside doctors who treat patients in Baltimore’s largest oncology center, have now studied blood from more than a thousand people. They say liquid biopsies can find cancer long before symptoms of the disease arise.
The company’s mission: to build a Bell Labs of aging research. It hoped to extend the human life span by coming up with a breakthrough as important, and as useful to humanity, as the transistor has been. ... Google’s founders created an academic-biotech hybrid they call an R&D company to follow up on such clues, providing nearly unlimited funding to a group of top researchers. ... despite the hype around its launch—Time magazine asked, “Can Google Solve Death?”—Calico has remained a riddle, a super-secretive company that three years in hasn’t published anything of note, rebuffs journalists, and asks visiting scientists to sign nondisclosure agreements. ... Right now, there’s no proven test for a person’s “biological” age; finding one would be scientifically useful and possibly lucrative. ... For all these diseases, aging is the single biggest risk factor. An 80-year-old is 40 times as likely to die from cancer as someone middle-aged. The risk for Alzheimer’s rises by 600 times. But what if it were possible to postpone all these deaths by treating aging itself? … The experiment will generate millions of readings—for levels of growth hormones and glucose, among other things. Churchill wouldn’t say how much Calico is paying, but simply feeding that many mice could cost $3 million.