Local startup raises billions of dollars to reverse the aging process

Anke Neustadt

An anti-aging startup launched with $3 billion this week in Redwood City, with superstar scientists bailing from their jobs to join up. Buckle up, because this column involves:

Mice getting younger.

The mixing of human and monkey embryos.

Rumored investment by Jeff Bezos.

And, hello? Reversing people’s aging.

The name of the impressive new startup is Altos Labs, and its mission is “to reverse the ravages of disease and aging that lead to disability and death, reinvigorating and extending the quality of life.”

People getting younger? Hello Fountain of Youth, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and Paul Rudd.

On Wednesday, Altos Labs officially launched with an ungodly amount of money for a new startup — $3 billion. The press release announcing the huge investment says little about who it comes from, besides a passing mention that Robert Nelsen, co-founder of ARCH Venture Partners, is on the board. ARCH is a big Chicago biotech investor in companies including Verve Therapeutics, a Boston startup trying to edit the human genome to stop heart disease.

PitchBook, the encyclopedic startups database, lists Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Russian investor Yuri Milner as investors. The New York Times previously reported that Milner helped the Kremlin invest in Facebook and Twitter. “We are only confirming ARCH as an investor at this time,” the company told me. “The other details we are not sharing right now.” Why do I wonder if Bezos and Milner will be among the first humans to take any approved anti-aging drugs?

But the company did announce the superstar scientists it has lured and they are big names, some with San Francisco and Bay Area ties. The three Altos Institutes of Science — in Redwood City, San Diego and Cambridge, England, at least for now — will be led by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte. A pioneer of gene-editing technologies, Belmonte is leaving his lab at Southern California’s Salk Institute after 30 years to join the startup. Last year, Belmonte led a team that developed the first embryo containing both human and monkey cells. Growing human-monkey babies. Imagine trying to keep those things in a crib. No indication that research will follow him to Altos.

MIT Technology Review (whose coverage I discovered from Ron Leuty of The San Francisco Business Times) wrote in 2019 that Belmonte was taking mice near death and making them “lively and active after being treated with an age-reversal mixture.” Yes, he was bringing rodents back from the brink of death to be young again. You’d need a really good mousetrap for those things.

The CEO of the new company is also leaving a top job. Hal Barron, chief scientific officer of the UK big pharma company GlaxoSmithKline, is coming to Altos in August as chief executive officer.

The new company has nabbed plenty of prestige and trophies with four Nobel Prize winners on the board, including Jennifer Doudna, chair of the chemistry department at UC Berkeley.

And, the Redwood City lab will be run by a UCSF biologist with an impressive resume. The Altos Bay Area Institute of Science will be led by Peter Walter, Ph.D., winner of the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF.

Another UCSF star, Dr. Hana El-Samad, is also leaving for Altos Labs, and bade a fond farewell on Twitter — while also announcing the new outfit is hiring.

“For the last few months, I have been working in stealth mode with a crew of incredible scientists and administrators to build Altos Labs,” she tweeted on Wednesday. “UCSF has my heart, it was my first home and will continue to be,” she added. “There will be much recruiting both for computational and experimental expertise. All kind of biology, cell engineering, modeling, theory” and artificial intelligence and machine learning.

And the big science names go on. Thore Graepel, Ph.D., will serve as global head of computational science, artificial intelligence and machine learning at Altos Labs. Graepel is leaving Google’s AI outfit DeepMind to join Altos. And he’s not the only big brain leaving Google’s AI efforts. This week The New York Times reported Mustafa Suleyman, “a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence” is leaving Google to join VC firm Greylock Partners.

Got all that? I haven’t seen that much excitement involving doctors since the season finale of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

And, I’m wondering what you’re wondering: Can I get me some of that anti-aging potion the mice got?

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Local startup raises billions of dollars to reverse the aging process

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