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Two tech-savvy billionaire investors have given their money, name, and credibility to a new biotech startup that targets aging and death – you read it right, death.
Jeff Bezos, who famously founded Amazon in his garage in 1994, and Yuri Milner, a billionaire who started his business career in the 1980s by selling gray-market computers within the old Soviet Union, are two of the investors behind a startup, Altos Labs, dedicated to learning how to reverse the aging process.
Altos Labs, founded earlier this year, incorporated in Delaware, has filed a securities disclosure indicating that it has raised at least $270 million toward this goal. It is not clear how much of that came from either of the two billionaires.
Milner provided the physical location of the lab: its scientists work out of a mansion of his in the Los Altos Hills above Palo Alto.
Who They’re Hiring
Covid vaccine research may have done much in recent months to offer an attractive public face to biomed investment. But Altos is going after something far more fundamental, the aging process itself, which it identifies with specialization of function at the cellular level.
Altos Labs has reportedly been hiring university scientists and offering them salaries as high as $1 million for them to pursue research on how cells age and how to reverse that process. The scientists recruited include Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, Steve Horvath, and Shinya Yamanaka.
Yamanaka is especially intriguing. He received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in October 2012. The Medicine prize was split that year between Yamanaka and John Gurdon. Both were recognized for their work on stem cells.
Yamanaka and Gurdon were honored for having shown that specialized cells can be “reprogrammed” to return to their “immature” state.
That notion of reprogramming is at the heart of much contemporary discussion about the reversal of aging.
The involvement in Altos of two tech-savvy investors, Yuri Milner and Jeff Bezos, has drawn comparison to Calico Labs, a longevity-research company created in 2013 by Bill Maris, and enthusiastically backed by Larry Page, one of the founders of Google.
Calico and Unity
One of Calico’s projects was to track 1,000 mice from birth to death in order to identify the biomarkers of aging, that is, the chemistry that predicts morbidity.
Calico in the middle of the second decade of this millennium, like Altos now, hired elite scientists and offered them generous budgets.
Calico’s progress, so far as the public can judge, has been slow. Indeed, it lost two of its key scientists within four months of each other.
Its head of research and development, Hal Barron, left for GlaxoSmithKline in December 2017.
Then Daphne Koller, who was leading a research program that involved artificial intelligence, left to pursue other biomed applications of AI, in March 2018.
Even before Calico, indeed even before the Nobel for the much-cited stem cell research, there was a 2011 startup called Unity Technologies which proposed offering medicines to selectively “eliminate certain stagnating cells in our bodies that cause the painful, debilitating diseases associated with old age.”
That wasn’t about immortality. Unity’s vision was of an old age that remained vigorous and disease-free. Still, it may be considered the same investable space.
The Calico story need not dissuade Yuri Milner or Jeff Bezos from their own endeavor.
Bezos has been heard from on the subject before. He received a good deal of publicity in 2016-17 when he put a good deal of money into Unity.
Little has been heard from Calico since the Barron/Koller departures. Little has been heard from Unity of late either.
From Biomed to Wellness
Yet aside from cutting-edge biochemists like Yamanaka, the idea of reprogramming specialized cells as a fountain of youth has fallen into the hands of wellness entrepreneurs.
Dave Asprey, founder of the “Bulletproof” wellness empire, says that he has had stem cells extracted from his own bone marrow and fat and injected into hundreds of locations, “into every joint, between every vertebrae.” Sound appealing?