Altos Labs is an American biotechnology research company that is reportedly leading a $3 billion search for immortality.
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In the pristine cylindrical atrium of Altos Labs’s Cambridge Institute of Science, under a skylight resembling a giant cyclopic eye, I ask the obvious question. What does the company actually do? “Cell rejuvenation,” replies the facilities manager. At least, looking back, I’m pretty sure that’s what he says. At the time, I hear something slightly different: “We sell rejuvenation.”
Home to one of the world’s highest concentrations of scientific talent, Altos Labs is pursuing a lavishly funded quest to unearth the secrets of ageing. The Stanford-meets-Soho House décor is enough to show that here, health is wealth. But even in the notoriously well-compensated field of biotechnology it stands out. Last year, the Silicon Valley venture revealed it had raised $3 billion from investors, making it one of the best-financed start-ups in history.
Its mission? Depending on who you ask, anything from reversing chronic diseases and deferring the helpless twilight of old age to cutting the keys of eternal youth and creating a race of immortal supreme beings. This furrow of science, which piques our hardwired anxiety of ageing and fear of death, has always been accompanied by disproportionate incentives for hype. Nor has it been helped by wealthy obsessives, who in recent years have very publicly taken their own anxiety to macabre new heights, such as the software entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who injected himself with his son’s blood and spends $2 million a year in the hope of achieving the body of an 18-year-old.
Altos’s leaders, however, are in the business of managing expectations. Hans Bishop, the president, has said his focus is on increasing “healthspan” rather than lifespan, and that any extension in longevity would be “an accidental consequence”. The idea is that, by focusing on “reprogramming” cells with various proteins, Altos can find medicines that treat many diseases at once by targeting the underlying problem: ageing.
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Bishop and his co-founders Rick Klausner and Yuri Milner are late entrants in the arena of anti-ageing research. Calico was set up a decade ago by Google co-founder Larry Page, though it has yet to unveil a product. Other players include Unity, BioAge, BioViva and AgeX Therapeutics. Billionaires — including Milner himself, Page, and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel — are regularly glimpsed behind the scenes.
Christopher Wareham, a bioethicist expert at Utrecht University who studies the ethics of aging, told The Financial Times that he was worried that elderly billionaires will become immortal and keep compounding wealth forever.