The new company, incorporated in the US and in the UK earlier this year, will establish several institutes in places including the Bay Area, San Diego, Cambridge, UK and Japan, and is recruiting a large cadre of university scientists with lavish salaries and the promise that they can pursue unfettered blue-sky research on how cells age and how to reverse that process.
Some people briefed by the company have been told that its investors include Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, who stepped down as CEO of Amazon in July and weeks later risked his life by jumping into a rocket capsule to reach outer space. Milner and his wife Julia confirmed through a spokesperson they are investors in Altos through a foundation.
Altos is certain to draw comparisons to Calico Labs, a longevity company announced in 2013 by Google co-founder, Larry Page. Calico also hired elite scientific figures and gave them generous budgets, although it’s been questioned whether the Google spinout has made much progress. Calico has also started a lab whose focus is reprogramming; it published its first preprint on the topic this year.
Among the scientists said to be joining Altos are Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, a Spanish biologist at the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California, who has won notoriety for research mixing human and monkey embryos and who has predicted that human lifespans could be increased by 50 years. Salk declined to comment.
Also joining is Steve Horvath, a UCLA professor and developer of a “biological clock” that can accurately measure human aging. Shinya Yamanaka, who shared a 2012 Nobel Prize for the discovery of reprogramming, will be an unpaid senior scientist and will chair the company’s scientific advisory board.
Yamanaka’s breakthrough discovery was that with the addition of just four proteins, now known as Yamanaka factors, cells can be instructed to revert to a primitive state with the properties of embryonic stem cells. By 2016, Izpisúa Belmonte’s lab had applied these factors to entire living mice, achieving signs of age reversal and leading him to term reprogramming a potential “elixir of life.”
The results of such mouse experiments, while tantalizing, were also frightening. Depending on how much reprogramming occurred, some mice developed ugly embryonic tumors called teratomas, even as others showed signs their tissues had become younger.
“Although there are many hurdles to overcome, there is huge potential,” Yamanaka said in an email, in which he confirmed his role in Altos.
It’s been said that young people dream of being rich, and rich people dream of being young. That paradox is one that people like Milner, age 59, and Bezos, who is 57 years old, may feel acutely. Forbes currently ranks Bezos as the world’s richest person, with a net worth of around $200 billion. Milner’s wealth is estimated at $4.8 billion.
Bezos Expeditions, the investment office of Amazon’s founder, did not reply to an email seeking comment.
People familiar with the formation of Altos say that initially Milner’s interest in reprogramming was philanthropic. After the meeting at his home, a non-profit called the Milky Way Research Foundation sponsored by Milner awarded three-year grants, of $1 million a year, to several longevity researchers. The proposals were considered by an advisory board including Yamanaka and Jennifer Doudna, who shared a Breakthrough Prize in 2015 and later a Nobel in 2020 for her co-discovery of CRISPR genome editing.