Altos Labs launched with the most funding of any biotech start-up ever, a board packed with Nobel Prize winners — and high expectations that it was trying to defeat death.
But the top scientists behind the new venture, which last week revealed it had raised $3bn from investors, insist they plan to reverse disease so people can live healthier for longer rather than chasing a sci-fi vision of helping some live forever.
Rick Klausner, chief scientific officer and former director of the US National Cancer Institute, told the Financial Times the company was aiming to be the “Bell Labs” of biology, a reference to the innovative research and development unit behind technologies such as the transistor.
Altos Labs will investigate how to rejuvenate cells under pressure from stresses including genetic abnormalities, injuries or ageing. By reprogramming cells, it could find medicines that treat many diseases at once, potentially disrupting the business of drug discovery.
Klausner said early scientific papers on the rejuvenating cells were greeted with “tremendous scepticism”, suggesting it was “too good to be true”. But he added that those findings had now been replicated by many other labs and in other circumstances, and had proved to be robust.
Altos Labs kept its mission under wraps until last week when it revealed its mammoth fundraising from unnamed investors and announced it had poached GlaxoSmithKline’s chief scientific officer Hal Barron to be chief executive.
Reports ahead of its launch claimed backers include billionaires Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner, and speculated that it would be the latest of a series of start-ups trying to use new anti-ageing science to increase lifespan.
However, Hans Bishop, the new president of Altos who worked with Klausner on oncology start-ups including Grail and Juno Therapeutics, said its focus was on increasing “healthspan”, and that any extension in longevity would be “an accidental consequence”.
He said that while a cure for cancer would only add a few years to the average lifespan, the impact would be far greater.
“Our goal is to focus on this huge problem in society that many years of people’s lives are afflicted by chronic diseases that destroy their quality of life . . . productivity and income at a huge cost to society,” he said. “If we can reverse those diseases, we generate an enormous benefit.”
Altos Labs will operate out of two hubs in California and one in the UK’s Cambridge, with significant research done in Japan, where Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka pioneered rejuvenation programming. Yamanaka will oversee research in Japan and serve as an adviser, while Nobel laureates Jennifer Doudna, Frances Arnold and David Baltimore will join the board.
The company aims to combine top scientists from academia with a mission to make medicines, even though most of the research is still at an early stage in mouse models.
Klausner, who came up with the initial idea over a series of video meetings during 2020, said the company had now realised it could move into clinical trials earlier than expected.
“I think we’re going to move into humans as quickly as possible,” he said.