AGING

Silicon Valley start-up funded by billionaires hires top ‘anti-aging’ experts

The secretive Altos Labs, which is said to be backed by Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner, has recruited leading specialists to find ways of reprogramming cells and ultimately prolong human life

Manuel Serrano, an expert on ageing at the Barcelona Institute for Research in Biomedicine, in 2017.
Manuel Serrano, an expert on ageing at the Barcelona Institute for Research in Biomedicine, in 2017.Albert Garcia

A new American company financed by billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner is recruiting some of the world’s leading experts in aging. Their aim? “Silicon Valley’s latest wild bet on living forever,” according to MIT’s Technology Review.

The company, named Altos Labs, has already signed up two prestigious Spanish scientists, Manuel Serrano and Juan Carlos Izpisua, according to the publication, with reported salaries of more than $1 million a year. Serrano, who currently works at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine of Barcelona, told the magazine he is being offered a large budget, full autonomy and a salary five to 10 times higher than the one he currently receives. “The aim is to understand rejuvenation,” he said. “Through a private company, we have the freedom to be bold and explore. In this way it will rejuvenate me,” the researcher joked. Serrano will move to Cambridge (UK) for the role, and declined to comment further on the move. Izpisua, currently working at the Salk Institute in the United States, has not yet responded to a request for information, and was “out of town, with very limited access to email,” according to an assistant.

Serrano did reflect on the idea of rejuvenation in an interview with this newspaper in 2017. “The most important change that has occurred in this field is to begin to consider aging as a disease, as something that can be manipulated. In mice it has been reversed, it has been possible to make them live longer, even to make an old mouse young again. That was science fiction 10 years ago,” he said at the time. “I imagine that if it can be done in a mouse it can be done in humans. It will be more difficult, but I think there will be anti-aging therapies in the relatively near future, in 10, 20 or 30 years. I doubt that will make us immortal, but we’re heading in that direction.”

Altos Labs plans to establish several research centers in the US, UK. and Japan, according to MIT Technology Review. Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2012 for a technique to reprogram adult cells to act like stem cells, confirmed that he will be chairman of the company’s scientific advisory board, an unpaid position. German biologist Wolf Reik, who resigned in July as director of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, is another Altos Labs recruit, according to the US magazine. Reik also declined to comment to this newspaper.

MIT Technology Review magazine traces the origin of Altos Labs to a meeting of scientists last October at Yuri Milner’s mansion in Los Altos Hills, California. Some of the researchers now recruited presented technologies with the potential to extend human life, such as Yamanaka’s cell reprogramming. Manuel Serrano’s team applied this technique to live mice in 2013, observing widespread cell reprogramming that also triggered tumor formation. In 2016, Juan Carlos Izpisua partially used this technique in mice with progeria, a disease that causes premature aging. The rodents lived 30% longer and the Spanish researcher proclaimed that “aging could be reversed.”

Spanish researcher Juan Carlos Izpisua at a congress in Albacete in 2018.
Spanish researcher Juan Carlos Izpisua at a congress in Albacete in 2018. Manu / EFE

The business’ backers have more than a passing interest in this. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the richest person on the planet, with a fortune of more than $200 billion, according to a ranking by Forbes magazine. He is 57 years old. Yuri Milner, a Russian-Israeli physicist who became a billionaire with his stake in Facebook and Twitter, is 589th on the Forbes list, with a fortune of $4.8 billion. He is 59 years old. Both regularly invest in scientific projects. Bezos owns Blue Origin, a company with which he traveled to space on July 20 on a flight lasting just 10 minutes. Milner announced in 2015, together with British physicist Stephen Hawking, that he would allocate $100 million to the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

From the meeting at the Los Altos Hills mansion came three grants of a million dollars each, through the Milner-sponsored Milky Way Research Foundation. Altos Labs was then born, under the direction of Richard Klausner, former director of the US National Cancer Institute. But Altos Labs is being developed with the utmost secrecy. This newspaper has tried unsuccessfully to interview Klausner and other scientists allegedly signed up by the company, such as the geneticist Steve Horvath, of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Yamanaka declined to comment through a spokesman at Kyoto University, where he directs a center dedicated to cell reprogramming. Biochemist Peter Walter of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), another supposed recruit, responded with a terse: “I have no news to share at this time.”

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