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Sep 11, 2021
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How Silicon Valley billionaires want to live forever

Last October, a large group of scientists arrived at Yuri Milner’s giant mansion in the hills outside Palo Alto. They were tested for Covid-19 and gathered in masks at the mansion’s theater for a two-day science conference. Several hundred more scientists joined in via video calls. Conference topic: how biotechnology can be used to rejuvenate people.

So, with the help of Jeff Bezos and several other billionaires, Altos Labs, a biological reprogramming technology company, was founded. She is now exploring several promising methods that could help reverse the aging process.

Milner’s mansion for $ 100 million. 2,400 square meters. The most expensive home in all of Silicon Valley

So far, the company has raised over $ 270 million in funding thanks to huge donations from the richest people around the world who would like to live as long as possible.

A key figure in the creation of this research laboratory is Yuri Milner, a Russian-born investor who made a fortune of $ 4.8 billion from investments in Facebook and Mail.ru. Scientists all over the world already know him very well. He previously co-founded the Breakthrough Prize with Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, a $ 3 million award given annually to outstanding physicists, biologists, and mathematicians.

The new company, which began operations in the US and UK this year, will set up several institutions in locations such as San Francisco, San Diego, Cambridge and Tokyo. She recruits a large staff of professors and scientists with promises that they can, without constraining themselves in finances, conduct unlimited research on why cells age and how this process can be reversed.

Among the investors in the project are Jeff Bezos, several billionaires and millionaires of Silicon Valley, plus Milner himself and his wife Julia.

Among the eminent scientists who are said to have already joined the project, there are enough people for the real version of the Umbrella corporation. Altos has been joined by, among others:

  • Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a Spanish biologist who wanted to grow human organs in monkeys for transplantation to humans and predicted that life expectancy in humans could be increased by 50 years.
  • Jennifer Doudna, who received a Nobel Prize in 2020 for her discovery of CRISPR gene editing technology. This technology has already been used successfully to create, say, low-fat pigs and bananas that can fight fungus that plagues plantations around the world.
  • Peter Walter. Walter’s lab at the University of California in 2016 created a molecular cognitive enhancer that was able to reverse age-related memory decline in mice. For this he already received Milner’s Breakthrough Prize.
  • Steve Horvath is a professor at the University of California Los Angeles and the creator of the “biological clock” method that can accurately measure human aging.
  • Shinya Yamanaka (2012 Nobel laureate), who, using four genes (MYC, OCT4, SOX2 and KLF4), taught cells to “renew” and “restart”, returning to a primitive state with the properties of embryonic stem cells. Subsequently, these four genes were called “Yamanaka factors.”

Shinya Yamanaka

Yamanaka will chair the company’s scientific advisory board. By the way, in 2016, one laboratory already used his method of “zeroing” to stem cells on live mice, and achieved real signs of reversing the course of age. True, not everything is as good as it sounds, the “elixir of youth” is still far from here: some mice developed ugly embryonic tumors, and for every living mouse there were several cancer patients.

Altos Labs focuses on the Yamanaka method. They will try to reprogram cells to teach them to return to the state of the stem cells from which they originated. The first and simplest task is to make it work on human skin cells. If this succeeds, the multimillion-dollar investment will pay off immediately: many women will want to use this technology to give their skin a more youthful look.

At the same time, the probability of success is very high. The method already has an undeniable and reproducible effect in laboratory experiments when applied to individual cells. “You can take a cell from an 80-year-old person and in vitro change the age of the cell to 40 years. There is no other technology that can do this, ”says Alejandro Ocampo, professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

Two mice born on the same day. Find the one who was given Yamanaka’s “elixir of youth”

We are all very familiar with this method. As scientists recently discovered, cell reprogramming is a key process in DNA rejuvenation. It occurs naturally when a fertilized egg becomes an embryo and after nine months results in a baby. Somehow, the parents’ DNA is cleared, refreshed, and restarted. With trillions of animals born this way over the past billion years, Ocampo believes it’s safe to say that “cell reprogramming is one of the most reproducible and natural processes in the world.”

But as for the complete rejuvenation of an already existing organism, everything is more complicated. So far, as we can see, many mice are developing cancer. Most likely, the problem here will simply be bombarded with money. By hiring the best scientists and creating optimal conditions for them.

Altos Labs is now luring university professors and bioengineers by offering salaries of $ 1 million a year or more, plus equity, and eliminating the hassle of applying for grants. Scientists will receive salaries at the top level in Silicon Valley, and will be able to do nothing other than their own research. And if their project turns out to be successful, they, as happens in ordinary startups, will get a chance to become billionaires. If any of them are interested.

One of the scientists, Manuel Serrano of the Institute for Biomedical Research (IRB), plans to move to Cambridge to work at Altos. He told MIT Technology Review that the company will pay him ten times what he is making now.

The philosophy of Altos Labs is to conduct research driven by curiosity. This is what I can and love to do. In addition, through a private company with such funding, we will have the freedom to be bold and take risks. It seems to me, at least, this project will rejuvenate me.

The Amazon founder, Facebook CEO, and Google executives have shown interest in researching ways to achieve longevity for quite some time. For example, Bezos previously invested in an anti-aging company called Unity Biotechnology. And Larry Page in 2013 announced the creation of Calico Labs, which also hired elite scientists and allocated them lavish budgets.

The Google project has not yet achieved much success in rejuvenating people. But they proved that in theory it is possible when they found the “first ageless mammal” – the naked mole rat. An underground rodent, the life span of which reaches 40 years, while in an ordinary rat or mouse – up to 2 years. This year, they also began researching the four genes of Yamanaka for the first time. Calico set up a reprogramming lab and this summer published its first results on the topic, testing the importance of each of the Yamanaka factors and the number of mutations when cells are temporarily rebooted with RNA.

Cover photo: Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner are one of the project’s investors



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