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Silicon Valley’s billionaires want to hack the ageing process

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The writer is a science commentator

The dreams of billionaires are something to behold. Their ultimate travel fix is not a luxury round-the-world jaunt but, in the case of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, a ride to the edge of space, albeit as publicity stunts for their respective commercial space ventures.

And when it comes to staying young, a hair transplant and facelift no longer suffice. Why not try to defer death by hacking the ageing process? That is the prospect behind Altos Labs, a Silicon Valley company that has poached some of the best-known scientists in the field of ageing. Amazon founder Bezos is one reported backer. Another is Yuri Milner, a billionaire tech investor who set up the Breakthrough Prizes with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, among others. Up to six prizes, worth $3m apiece, are awarded across the life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics, making them the most lucrative individual gongs for science (the Nobel Prizes are each worth a shade over $1m).

Few researchers are likely to turn down unlimited funding with few strings attached and eye-watering salaries. Among those that MIT Technology Review confirmed as joining Altos, which plans institutes in the US, UK and Japan, is Steve Horvath, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles who developed a molecular biomarker of ageing, now known as the “Horvath clock”. Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University becomes an unpaid Altos adviser.

Like Horvath, his name has entered the lexicon of cutting-edge biology: he shared a 2012 Nobel Prize for identifying four proteins now known as “Yamanaka factors”. Add these factors to a cell, and, remarkably, the cell can regress and acquire the coveted malleability of immature cells. That finding was exploited by Manuel Serrano at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, who applied the technique not to individual cells but to whole mice, with mixed results.

Serrano is also jumping ship to the new venture, dedicated to “reprogramming” cells back to a younger state. The ultimate goal, despite the blue-skies mantra, is to discover the fountain of youth. Ageing is one of the toughest biological problems to crack but the fact that parents with old cells can create young babies shows nature has already mastered cellular reprogramming.

We inherit genetic material from our parents, which is wiped clean of age-related changes after fertilisation to resemble something closer to the original genetic source code. That process has not proven easy to emulate in the lab: Serrano’s mice, subjected to the Yamanaka-inspired Benjamin Button treatment, showed signs of youthful rejuvenation but also developed teratomas. These are rare tumours that contain multiple types of tissue, including teeth, hair and muscle, suggesting reprogramming can awaken cancer-causing genes.

Rowan Hooper, an evolutionary biologist turned science writer, featured Silicon Valley’s obsession with longevity in his book How to Spend a Trillion Dollars. He points out that Google’s Calico and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, set up by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, a doctor, share Altos’s view of ageing: as a disease to be cured. 

Hooper has mixed feelings about the race for eternal youth, given that universal healthcare would be a more equitable way to lengthen lifespan: “In many ways this looks like more Silicon Valley hubris, and certainly the idea of billionaires living forever while the planet fries is not something that feels like a happy outcome. But Altos is recruiting world-class scientists and funding research that will spill over for the rest of science and medicine, even if it doesn’t deliver an elixir of life any time soon.”

Peter Thiel, of PayPal, once described death as a problem to be solved. Given the existential challenge of climate change, sometimes it really does feel as if the super-rich live on a different planet.

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