Jeff Bezos and Russian-born billionaire Yuri Milner are tackling longevity with the research-based company Altos Labs.(VectorVictor | Shutterstock)
In the Los Altos Hills above the city of Palo Alto, California, a large gathering of scientists met last October to discuss how to use biotechnology research to make people younger. They met at Russian-born billionaire Yuri Milner’s super mansion. Milner’s enthusiasm for scientific philanthropy has recently taken a specific direction, focusing on anti-aging research, which spawned the meeting. The scientific meeting progressed to descriptions of radical studies geared toward “rejuvenating” animals and ended with the formation of the ambitious anti-aging company called Altos Labs.
According to the MIT Technology Review, the new company has bigwig investors, including the purported world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos. The biotechnology startup will establish institutes in regions that include the Bay Area, San Diego, the UK, and Japan. And they’re in the process of recruiting university scientist personnel and doling out superstar salaries of $1 million a year and more.
So, what new technological advancements would garner the attention of so many in the research community to warrant a big meeting at Milner’s super mansion? The answer is biological reprogramming, which refers to adding four proteins called Yamanaka factors to cells to induce their rejuvenation.
With Shinya Yamanaka’s 2006 discovery that genetically manipulating these four proteins induces cells to become youthful stem cells, he won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Since then, scientists have published a few studies applying Yamanaka factors to rejuvenate tissues, and Harvard’s David Sinclair has even restored vision in mice with them! The anti-aging-oriented Altos Labs plans to pursue biological reprogramming technology to revitalize entire animal bodies with hopes of eventually drastically prolonging human lifespans.
Among the prominent scientists joining Altos are Juan Carlos Izpisùa Belmonte, a Spanish biologist from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Belmonte has gained notoriety for his research involving the mixing of human and monkey embryos and his prediction of a 50-year human lifespan extension on the not-too-distant horizon.
Another mogul in the scientific community joining Altos is UCLA professor Steve Horvath who has developed a “biological clock” that accurately measures human aging. Horvath’s aging measurements rely on DNA tagging patterns that change as we grow older, consisting of arrays called “methyl groups.”
Moreover, Shinya Yamanaka himself, the discoverer of biological reprogramming, will fill the role of a senior scientist and chair of the company’s scientific advisory board. “Although there are many hurdles to overcome, there is huge potential,” said Yamanaka in an email exchange with the MIT Technology Review. For example, Belmonte’s lab applied the Yamanaka factors to entire live mice in 2016 and achieved signs of aging reversal, triggering Belmonte to refer to reprogramming as a potential “elixir of life.”
As the old adage goes, young people dream of being rich, and rich people dream of being young. This paradox acutely applies to Milner, age 59, and his investing partner, Bezos, who is 57 years old. Perhaps feeling the weight of growing older inspired Milner and Bezos to make the Altos company directed toward anti-aging research a reality.
“There are hundreds of millions of dollars being raised by investors to invest in reprogramming, specifically aimed at rejuvenating parts or all of the human body,” said David Sinclair from Harvard University. Sinclair describes the human rejuvenation field as “nascent” but believes it has some promise.
“What else can you do that can reverse the age of the body?” he questions. “In my lab we are ticking off the major organs and tissues, for instance, skin, muscle, and brain – to see which we can rejuvenate.” Sinclair isn’t involved with the Altos biotechnology company, but he did speak at the 2020 meeting at the super mansion and applied for a Milner-funded award.
So, how much has Altos raised for their anti-aging research endeavors so far? A securities disclosure filed in California in June indicates the company has raised at least a whopping $270 million, according to Will Gornall, a University of British Columbia business professor. Several other wealthy tech moguls and venture capitalists have invested in the company, along with Milner and Bezos.
With all this funding, the Altos business model, at least initially, will encompass funding researchers with no expectations for generating products or revenues. In other words, Milner and the company’s CEO Richard Klausner say that the initial output from Altos will be “great science.”
“The philosophy of Altos Labs is to do curiosity-driven research. This is what I know how to do and love to do,” says Manuel Serrano, a researcher from Barcelona, Spain who will work for the company. His salary will pay him five to 10 times what he made in his previous position. “In this case, through a private company, we have the freedom to be bold and explore. In this way it will rejuvenate me.”
But some in the scientific community are skeptical of biological reprogramming’s promise. “To me the Yamanaka factors are not realistic for use in the clinic,” says Serrano. “They involve the introduction of genes, some of which are oncogenic. This is hard to pass through the filter of regulatory agencies.” Although reprogramming cells with Yamanaka factors works in laboratory dishes, finding ways to translate their rejuvenating effects to live animals has proven somewhat difficult.
“I think the concept is strong, but there is a lot of hype. It’s far away from translation,” says Alejandro Ocampo who used to work in Belmonte’s Salk lab. He’s skeptical about reprogramming technology turning into medicine any time soon. “One problem is that reprogramming doesn’t just make cells act younger but also changes their identity – for instance, turning a skin cell into a stem cell. That is what makes the technology too dangerous to put on people yet.”
Altos is exploiting the scientific connection between aging clocks, like the one from Horvath, and reprogramming. Reprogramming appears to work by remodeling the methylation patterns on DNA to resemble the patterns present in immature cells. This means that Altos will be working at the cutting edge of both facilitating rejuvenation with reprogramming and measuring it with Horvath’s “biological clock.”
Some experts say that anti-aging research isn’t something that government funding agencies can do quickly enough. Along those lines, it looks like a collaboration between Milner and Bezos to pursue anti-aging research may be what this burgeoning field needs for fast progress. With financial support from big-name venture capitalists and the intellectual prowess of leading academic scientists, rejuvenation research using reprogramming may drastically extend our lives. Maybe current generations of people will reap the lifespan-extending rewards of this research, or perhaps the new field will lay the groundwork for superhuman lifespans beyond our lifetimes.