Billionaires are winding back the biological clock
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Billionaires are winding back the biological clock

At the frontiers of biotechnology, new startup Altos Labs seeks to find a safe way to reverse ageing in human beings.

It is a paradox of human nature to always yearn for what is not. For instance, young people dream of being rich and rich people dream of being young. American singer and songwriter, Randy Newman hit the nail on the head when he said, “It’s very hard to get rich and famous at a young age and handle it well.”

This would also probably explain why the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, currently 57 years old and ranked by Forbes as the world’s wealthiest individual (net worth ~$200 billion), and 59-year old Russian tech investor Yuri Milner (net worth ~$4.8 billion), collaborated in investing in a strange new anti-ageing startup, Altos Labs, which aims to reverse the effects of ageing. In fact, Milner founded Altos Labs in early 2021, while Milner and Bezos together provided the initial financial backing for the startup.

The Altos executive team includes stars like Hal Barron, MD (CEO), Rick Klausner, MD (Chief Scientist and Founder), Hans Bishop (President and Founder), and Ann Lee-Karlon, PhD. Klausner was the 11th Director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, while Barron is currently president of R&D and Chief Scientific Officer at GlaxoSmithKline. Bishop is the former CEO of Juno Therapeutics and GRAIL, and has over 30 years of experience in the biotechnology industry. Lee-Karlon was senior VP at Genentech, a leading biotechnology company. UCLA professor Steve Horvath, who developed an “epigenetic clock” to accurately measure the age of cells or whole organisms, will also be joining Altos.

Altos is currently ambitiously engaged in creating institutes in the US, UK and Japan.

The international aspirations of Altos Labs reinforce global interest in age-reversal processes, with research indicating that the anti-ageing industry, which was valued at USD 2.46 billion in 2020, will probably grow to USD 60.95 billion by 2027. Today’s anti-aging market largely consists or anti-ageing creams and lotions, which have lead of over 50% compared to other anti-ageing products. This is expected to remain the case until about 2028.

As science explains, ageing is a process of the deterioration of cells that leads to tissue malfunction and ultimately, death. Researchers have put forward a cause of ageing as “epigenetic noise.” That is, a process that disturbs gene expression patterns, resulting in a loss of tissue function and regenerative capacity. While it is known that ageing occurs with changes to DNA methylation patterns with time, what is unknown is if older individuals retain the genetic information needed to reverse the ageing process.

Credit. Lexica art generated

An added impetus for age-reversal capabilities came from the discoveries of Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese stem cell researcher, who, in 2006, discovered that a small number of genes in matured skin cells of mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells, which in turn, could become different cells in the body.

Furthermore, he found that these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to not need human embryos to come into existence. This led to the discovery of four proteins (Oct3/4, Sox2, c-Myc and Klf4 — collectively known as “Yamanaka Factors“), which have the capability to reprogram and transform a fully mature cell into an embryonic-state cell.

This discovery led to Yamanaka being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2012, jointly, with Sir John B. Gurdon.

Yamanaka is a superstar in ageing biology and has since joined as a pro bono senior scientist of Altos and will chair their scientific advisory board, in another big win for the company.

Today, Yamanaka’s discovery is at the forefront of finding an age-reversal process. His work focuses on a partial reprogramming, where Yamanaka factors are applied to cells to reverse ageing and to repair tissues, but without going back to pluripotency, allowing a cell to multiply into other cell types.

Spanish biochemist Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, who, in 2016, led such a study, reducing the physiological appearance of ageing in living mice and extended their lives an extra six weeks, hailed the process as “the elixir of life.” Belmonte will also be joining Altos Labs.

The earlier reprogramming efforts, which showed dramatic age-reversals in the eye, muscle and other cultured tissues from mammals and rodents, have ignited interest in translating the processes into age-reversal processes for human beings. As Daniel Ives, CEO and founder of Shift Bioscience, a biotechnology company in England focused on safe cellular reprogramming therapies for rejuvenation, said, “This is a pursuit that has now become a race.”

[Reversing the ageing process] is a pursuit that has now become a race.

Daniel Ives, CEO and founder of Shift Bioscience

Nevertheless, the path is not all smooth and easy. Even the experts are unsure when reprogrammed cells are expected to reach the “point of no return” of the embryonic state. They say the timing could be two or three days after the reprogramming, or could even be a week.

As Konrad Hochedlinger of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute said, “Once a single cell has made it over to an iPSC, that single cell is sufficient to make a tumour.” Some of the mice in the cell reprogramming experiments developed tumours known as “teratomas” due to cells reverting to the embryonic state, and changing their functions. Even though Altos Labs is seeking to “safely reprogram” cells to “reverse disease,” and even though there are indications time could be reversed inside a living being, it is yet unknown territory and not considered safe to try on humans.

With Altos’ publicity, other key personnel in the anti-ageing biology industry have been active in recent months.

David Sinclair, ageing biology researcher at Harvard University stated that, “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.”

Stanford University’s Vittorio Sebastiano said, “This message needs to be clear — it’s not about extending the lifespan. What we care about is increasing the health span of people… and that you don’t have to live for a long time in a condition of frailty.”

Still, one major issue remains: How to customise reprogramming so that animals can be rejuvenated without killing them. The aim of Altos Labs is “to understand rejuvenation,” according to researcher Manuel Serrano. And pursuing rejuvenation therapeutics requires managing expectations.

In Yamanaka’s view, “Although there are many hurdles to overcome, there is huge potential.”