Altos Labs: Silicon Valley's quest for eternal youth explained

Jeff Bezos among tech billionaires to invest in human 'reprogramming' company

The quest for permanently wrinkle-free skin didn’t go well for Oscar Wilde’s tortured eternal-youth seeker Dorian Gray, but somebody clearly forgot to tell Jeff Bezos.

When not attempting to race fellow moguls into space in his Blue Origin rocket, the world’s richest man is one of a slew of Silicon Valley luminaries reportedly investing in Altos Labs, an anti-ageing company founded by Russia-born billionaire Yuri Milner.

How Altos Labs was founded

Mr Milner, who made his fortune on Facebook and Mail.ru, has form for rewarding scientific discoveries in the shape of the $3 million Breakthrough Prizes. If Altos Labs succeeds in reversing the ageing process, he will be rewarding himself.

Coined "reprogramming", last October Mr Milner convened a stellar group of scientists to discuss how biotechnology could be used to achieve this scientific holy grail.

The meeting proved the Petri dish for Altos Labs, which, according to a securities disclosure filed in California in June, has raised at least $270m in funding.

Working alongside Yuri Milner has been entrepreneur Richard Klausner, the ex-head of America’s National Cancer Institute known for organising seismic financial bets on new biotechnologies.

Where Altos Labs will be based

Altos Labs registered as a limited business in the US and UK earlier this year.

It aims to establish institutes in the Bay Area, San Diego; Cambridge, UK; and Japan, according to Technology Review.

Richard Klausner is chief executive of the company, according to the incorporation filing in the UK.

The scientists working for Altos Labs and how much they are being paid

The full roster of scientists on the Altos Labs books is unknown. However, some well-known names in the biotechnology field are said to have signed up.

One is Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who believes human lifespans can be increased by 50 years.

The Spanish biologist has been involved in controversial work at the Salk Institute in California: attempting to create human-monkey chimeras, which possess organs that can be used in human transplants.

Fellow Spaniard Manuel Serrano will join from the Institute of Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona. Mr Serrano was one of the first cohort of scientists to genetically re-engineer mice to an embryonic stage. In the process, the mice all developed tumours, an inauspicious omen for his forthcoming employment with Altos Labs.

Another scientist on Team Altos is University of California professor Steve Horvath, the inventor of a “biological clock” which accurately measures human ageing.

Joining, too, are University of California memory researcher Peter Walter, and reprogramming specialist Wolf Reik, formerly of the Babraham Institute in the UK.

The company’s scientific advisory board will be chaired by Shinya Yamanaka, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2012 for his discovery that mature cells can be converted to stem cells.

This role will be unpaid but other scientists are being lured by the prospect of million-dollar-plus salaries, a stake in the company, and freedom from the laborious academic process of applying for grants.

Is Altos Labs the only company attempting to slow ageing and will it succeed?

Anti-ageing is big business, and there are a number of other start-ups pursuing a similar goal. They include:

  • Life Biosciences
  • Turn Biotechnologies
  • AgeX Therapeutics
  • Shift Bioscience
  • Calico Labs

Of these, the most renowned is Calico Labs, which was founded by Google’s Larry Page in 2013. Like Yuri Milner, Mr Page hired a slate of pioneering scientists on mega salaries. Tellingly, demonstrable progress is yet to be made.

The same applies to the other companies listed, none of which has produced any treatments being tested on people in clinical trials.

Quote
I think it’s moving too fast. I don’t know if we should have five to eight reprogramming companies —it looks too quick
Prof Alejandro Ocampo

It would seem then that the attempts to stall ageing have themselves stalled.

Several researchers question whether it is a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it.

“I think it’s moving too fast. I don’t know if we should have five to eight reprogramming companies — it looks too quick,” University of Lausanne professor Alejandro Ocampo told Technology Review. “How many papers have there even been in in-vivo reprogramming? It’s the same as the number of companies.”

Prof Ocampo isn’t wholeheartedly sceptical and called the concept “strong”.

“You can take a cell from an 80-year-old and, in vitro, reverse the age by 40 years. There is no other technology that can do that,” he said.

However, he cautioned that reprogramming doesn’t just make cells act younger but also changes their identity, meaning it is “too dangerous to try on people yet”.

Updated: September 9th 2021, 10:18 AM
EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS