After Conquering Space, Jeff Bezos Is Chasing Immortality
Featuring Altos Labs, the reverse-aging startup that’s dead serious about eternal youth
Space has always felt like the final frontier for humans. But after billionaire turned it into a destination for tourists, it started to appear within reach. And so, one can’t help but wonder: What’s next?
“Given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity,” Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his book Homo Deus. “We will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself.”
The prediction Harari made in 2015 turned out to be exactly right. Becoming Godlike or Homo Deus has entered the agenda of the world’s richest people and one of their recent bets is a startup called Altos Labs.
The rise of Silicon Valley’s immorality startup
It all started in October 2020 inside a big mansion situated in Los Altos, California. The owner of the place, Yuri Milner, had invited a group of scientists and wealthy people to discuss biotechnology. More precisely, the reversal of a somewhat annoying process called “aging.”
For reference, Yuri Milner is a Russian-Israeli billionaire who owns stocks at companies like Facebook, Stripe, Twitter, Xiaomi, Alibaba, Airbnb, VKontakte (the Russian Facebook), and many others.
Before he got into investing, he was a physicist who graduated from Moscow State University and completed his diploma with an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania. From there, he worked as a banker and steadily climbed the corporate ladder becoming CEO of Mail.Ru, a company worth $5.6 billion.
Later, during his investing endeavors, Milner became acquainted with many Silicon Valley actors. That’s perhaps what encouraged him to launch his own startup alongside his wife Julia. The couple organized a preparatory meeting in the form of a science conference, then injected capital through a foundation, thus becoming the face of Altos Labs.
The Milners aren’t the only big players in the game though.
There’s also Richard Klausner who was recently declared CEO of the new startup. Klausner kicked off his career in the National Institute of Health with a postdoctoral position. Soon after he turned 30, he became chief of the cell biology and metabolism branch and continued to rise through the ranks becoming director of the National Cancer Institute. In the early 2000s, he left that position to engage in advisory roles and act as the executive director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Quite a resume.
Nowadays, Klausner is an entrepreneur who lives in Los Altos, where he met the Milners. While briefing persons of interest, Klausner and the rest of the Altos team mentioned Jeff Bezos as one of their investors.
As of this writing, Bezos hasn’t confirmed his involvement but the odds are good he’s in the party. As MIT Technology Review put it, “Bezos is said to have a fairly long-standing interest in longevity research, and he previously invested in an anti-aging company called Unity Biotechnology.”
Some agree with the aforementioned Yuval Noah Harari and say it’s the next logical step in our technological revolution. Others think it’s a manifestation of the hidden fears of three very wealthy men who are getting old — Bezos is 57 and worth $192 billion, Milner is 59 and worth $4.8 billion, and Klausner is 70 and worth $74 million.
Either way, Altos Labs seems to be dead serious about eternal youth.
The technology involved sounds like science-fiction
Inside your body, there’s a cell factory. Its job is to ensure the production and replication of all types of cells — from the ones inside your brain to the ones that make up your toes. Each cell has an expiration date by the end of which it either dies or becomes what scientists call a senescent cell.
Senescent cells are like undead micro-zombies that invade your body each year, harming tissue around them and causing your body to age. But they’re not the only culprit. There are also stem cells, or to be precise, the absence of stem cells. These microorganisms are malleable blueprints that can be transformed into any type of cell. Imagine a stock of spare parts that can take the shape of any broken piece you need to change. The catch? The older you get, the smaller your stock of stem cells.
With this in mind, we can talk about reverse-aging. Two specific mechanisms come into play. One, make sure senescent cells self-destruct when they reach their limits to make space for “fresh and healthy cells.” And two, make more stem cells to maintain continuous production of the said “fresh and healthy cells.”
That’s roughly what cellular reprogramming does. It hacks your biology in order to expand the lifespan of your cells and thus, yours too. In an ideal setup, the technology turns your body into an eternal self-regenerating machine. It really sounds like science-fiction, doesn’t it? Except it’s not.
There are entire bodies of research dedicated to cellular reprogramming and many technologies have been tested on mice — and some of these work.
As you may have guessed, Altos Labs targeted the very pioneers responsible for these breakthroughs when looking for employees.
The dream team of (mad) scientists
Perhaps the most notorious recruit of Altos Labs is Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte. This Spanish biologist conducted experiments where he mixed human and monkey embryos to produce chimeras that can carry human organs which can later be used in transplants. Yes, really.
Izpisúa Belmonte’s audacity isn’t the only reason the HR department of this new anti-aging startup contacted him. He had also predicted we could expand the human lifespan by 50 years after conducting his own cellular reprogramming experiments. In 2016, Izpisúa Belmonte’s lab applied what’s called the Yamanaka factors to reverse the aging of sick mice.
Here’s how a journalist who witnessed Belmonte’s work described her experience:
The black mouse on the screen sprawls on its belly, back hunched, blinking but otherwise motionless. Its organs are failing. It appears to be days away from death. It has progeria, a disease of accelerated aging, caused by a genetic mutation. It is only three months old.
I am in the laboratory of Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte […] who next shows me something hard to believe. It’s the same mouse, lively and active, after being treated with an age-reversal mixture.
The said mixture derives from a discovery made by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka and two colleagues with whom he won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine. They pioneered the cellular reprogramming field. Altos Labs reached out to Yamanaka and he agreed to work as an unpaid senior advisor. “Although there are many hurdles to overcome,” Yamanaka said. “There is huge potential.”
The list of (future) employees goes on revealing other brilliant individuals including Steve Horvath who developed a “biological clock” that can measure human aging with astonishing precision. Also joining is Peter Walter, who was in the research team that produced a molecule potentially capable of healing brain injuries, cure diseases like Alzheimer, and revive fading memory.
“Great science” is the only product expected by investors (for now)
With billionaires behind the funding of Altos Labs, the financial return on investment doesn’t seem to be the top priority. It seems to be quite the opposite. The company offers $1 million annual salaries and equity to its first employees, most of them academics whose current salaries are a fraction of that amount.
That being said, there are other appealing aspects that come with working for Altos. No more begging for funding from the government and other institutions. No more strict regulations neither.
“The philosophy of Altos Labs is to do curiosity-driven research. This is what I know how to do and love to do,” researcher and fresh recruit Manuel Serrano said. “In this case, through a private company, we have the freedom to be bold and explore. In this way it will rejuvenate me.”
It also helps that building a Fountain of Eternal Youth may be worth billions (trillions?) in the wake of a reverse-aging market. Otherwise, I doubt investors would’ve poured $270 million into the project under less than a year.
Besides, it’s hard to believe the trio of Bezos, Milner, and Klausner are willing to wait indefinitely for results. In particular, if Amazon’s founder wants to conquer space, the remaining years in his Homo Sapien life may not be enough. That’s perhaps why his next goal is to mutate into a Homo Deus. Going back to Yuval Noah Harari’s wisdom:
The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger, tastier.
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