Death is very likely the single best invention of Life,’ Steve Jobs once observed. ‘It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.’
There are many who would beg to disagree with the co-founder of Apple, who died in 2011 — not least his peers in Silicon Valley.
For it is they who are leading a charge towards a new frontier in medicine that will revolutionise our ‘healthspans’ — the number of years of good health we can expect to enjoy — and push back the worst effects of ageing.
The announcement this week that a new anti-ageing company, Altos Labs, which is based in the U.S. and UK, has been established to ‘hack’ the ageing process has reignited interest in the science of rejuvenation, an obsession that has spanned continents and the ages.
A new anti-ageing company, Altos Labs, which is based in the U.S. and UK, has been established to ‘hack’ the ageing process has reignited interest in the science of rejuvenation
And the answer lies not in the mythical elixir of youth but in the decidedly less alluring process of ‘in vivo cellular reprogramming’ — more of which later.
With backers who reportedly include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, estimated to be worth $188 billion, money is no object for Altos.
Another deep-pocketed backer, and indeed Altos co-founder, is 59-year-old Yuri Milner, a Kremlin-connected Russian billionaire dotcom investor and friend of eco-campaigning celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise and Prince Harry. (Another co-founder is Dr Rick Klausner, former head of America’s National Cancer Institute.)
The venture, which is based on three campuses — two in California and a third in Cambridge (where Dr Wolf Reik, an expert in gene regulation, will run the UK end of the Altos operation) — revealed yesterday it had amassed $3 billion in start-up funding alone.
In further proof that there is an open chequebook at Altos Labs, the company announced that it had poached one of the world’s most respected scientists, the American Hal Barron, to be its chief executive.
Barron was previously chief scientific officer at British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline where he’d been paid more than its CEO, earning an annual salary of £8.2 million.
‘I am deeply honoured to have been offered this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead such a unique company with a transformative mission to reverse disease,’ said Mr Barron on Wednesday.
He is joined by a host of other illustrious scientists — including Nobel laureates — on the Altos board or as advisers.
Barron’s words put a positive spin on the aims of a venture that some have dismissed as the ultimate billionaire vanity exercise.
With backers who reportedly include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, estimated to be worth $188 billion, money is no object for Altos
Bezos is also said to have backed another company, Unity Biotechnology, which is developing ‘senolytic drugs’ which would rid the body of ‘senescent cells’ — old cells which do not die but which secrete damaging chemicals.
Known as zombie cells, they have been linked to arthritis, dementia, osteoporosis and diabetes. Early and very limited trials suggest patients improve when given such drugs.
Other Silicon Valley titans who are backing anti-ageing research include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
British billionaire Jim Mellon has created Juvenescence, his own life extension company.
Cynics might say that their investment is informed by the arrogant assumption that ageing is simply a disease that can be cured if enough money is thrown at it.
For the man who has everything — and it is usually men — it is understandable that you would want to put off that dreaded day when all those billions just cease to matter.
And yet, the myriad top flight scientists involved in this lucratively-remunerated field insist their research won’t only help the likes of Bezos and Zuckerberg to live longer, but could transform and extend the lives of untold millions of people, banishing diseases — particularly those associated with ageing.
But how? In the 1960s film She, Ursula Andress needed only to take a quick dip in mystical cold flames to maintain her youth and beauty despite being 2,000 years old. The science at Altos Labs is very complicated and a lot less glamorous.
The firm is basing its research around two relatively recent breakthroughs. The first involves what is known as Yamanaka transcription factors.
They are named after a Nobel Prize-winning Japanese scientist, Dr Shinya Yamanaka, who in 2006 shocked the world when he discovered that by adding just four gene-regulating proteins — known as ‘Yamanaka factors’ — to cells they could be ‘reprogrammed’ to return to a younger and far more adaptable form, so-called ’embryonic stem cells’.
Bezos is also said to have backed another company, Unity Biotechnology, which is developing ‘senolytic drugs’ which would rid the body of ‘senescent cells’ — old cells which do not die but which secrete damaging chemicals
It’s a process that’s been compared to restoring an electronic device to its factory settings.
Stem cells are the body’s raw materials — from which all other cells in the body, from skin cells to liver cells to brain and nerve cells and every cell in between, are generated.
Under the right, controlled conditions in the laboratory or in the body — in vivo — the stem cells will divide to form yet more cells. These embryonic stem cells can be used to regenerate or repair diseased tissue and organs — and even rejuvenate the whole body.
Dr Yamanaka is acting as an unpaid adviser to Altos Labs, which has also hired two Spanish scientists who have applied his discovery to mice. The results have so far been mixed.
While some mice did show signs that their tissues were getting younger, others developed tumours, although this problem has now been addressed.
Further experiments on mice suggest that among other benefits, the re-programming of cells can stop the progression of progeria, a rare genetic disorder that causes children to age rapidly; speed up the healing of injured muscles; and protect the liver against damage by paracetamol.
One of the Spaniards joining the Altos team, Manuel Serrano, will be based in Cambridge, which has already become an international capital for the sort of stem cell research that is key to anti-ageing science.
His countryman, biochemist Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, has forecast that humans could live for around 50 years longer than the current average life span of around 80 using stem-cell therapies. He has even gone so far as to claim the Yamanaka discovery amounts to a genuine ‘elixir of life’ — which is just the sort of language the tech barons want to hear.
The other key scientific breakthrough which Altos Labs will investigate concerns the so-called ‘integrated stress response’ (ISR) pathway in humans.
Studies have shown high levels of stress can damage cells in the human body. If these damaged cells undergo cell division, the new cells will also be damaged.
If the ISR detects a problem, it can turn on an emergency reset programme. If this fails to work, the ISR destroys the rogue cells to stop the damage spreading.
However, ISR pathways can malfunction and resetting them will be a focus of Altos Labs’ research. Artificial intelligence will play a part at Altos in understanding the workings of cells which are composed of millions of molecules. Insiders say that without current computing technology to crunch the vast amount of data that will be generated, the firm’s research ambitions would never have been possible.
One of the Spaniards joining the Altos team, Manuel Serrano, will be based in Cambridge, which has already become an international capital for the sort of stem cell research that is key to anti-ageing science
Yet no matter how many top scientists and billions of dollars are thrown into Altos Labs, success is by no means guaranteed.
Critics say too much of the current research is based on the fundamental misconception that the human body is like a machine and wears out in much the same way. They counter that the biology of ageing cannot be controlled, arguing that given that death is inevitable, evolution has put more emphasis on our potential for growth and reproduction than on repairing our DNA.
Altos Labs insiders say the firm isn’t about making a fast buck but embarking on ‘curiosity-driven’ research that could eventually unlock one of Nature’s greatest secrets.
There are, of course, enormous ethical questions about rejuvenation. Leaving aside the frightening demographic repercussions of a human population that lives on and on, assuming any breakthrough would first benefit the rich and powerful, would we want a world in which tyrants stayed in power for ever and billionaires became even more obscenely wealthy?
To be blunt, would we want to give Jeff Bezos — whose company is killing the High Street, paying trifling amounts in taxes and having a devastating environmental impact — another lifetime to do it all over again?
Bezos, a sci-fi devotee on whose bottomless wallet the success of Altos may ultimately depend, certainly seems to be preoccupied with cheating the Grim Reaper.
In his final letter to Amazon shareholders when he resigned as boss last July, he quoted the British biologist Richard Dawkins: ‘Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at . . . If living things don’t actively work to prevent it, they would eventually merge with their surroundings and cease to exist as autonomous beings.’
But whether Altos Labs becomes Silicon Valley’s latest passing fad or a medical revolution that benefits all mankind, it certainly won’t be for lack of cash or scientific brainpower.