In September 2021, we reported that Altos Labs was about to launch an ambitious project to develop partial cellular reprogramming to the point where it could be safely used in humans to reverse cellular aging. That launch has now officially started, and Altos Labs is shaping up to be a real contender in the battle against aging and age-related diseases.
Altos Labs has considerable backing behind it
Among the backers of Altos Labs are Russian-born billionaire Yuri Milner along with Jeff Bezos, who is the world’s richest person and the former CEO of Amazon who stepped down last July.
Altos Labs has also attracted significant scientific talent. Shinya Yamanaka, one of the men who started it all, is in the scientific leadership. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the first researcher to demonstrate that Yamanaka factors could be used in living animals to make them younger again, is also on the team.
Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna, one of the researchers involved in the discovery of the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, is on the board. We also recently learned that Morgan Levine has also joined the Altos team and brings her expertise of epigenetic clocks with her.
Cellular aging can be reversed
Sounds interesting, but what is Altos Labs doing, and what is its approach to targeting aging?
In a nutshell, as we age, our cells change their gene expression patterns and move from a profile that is pro-youth to one that is pro-aging. This change was always assumed to be a one-way-street until 2006, when Drs. Takahashi and Yamanaka showed that it was possible to reprogram mouse cells using just four transcription factors: Oct4, Sox2, Klf4, and c-Myc (OSKM). These genes became known as the Yamanaka factors.
It was discovered that these Yamanaka factors could reprogram adult cells back to an embryonic state called pluripotency, a flexible state in which the cell behaves like an embryonic stem cell and can become any other cell type in the body.
It was also shown that reprogramming these cells back to pluripotency caused them to behave like young cells again. Telomere length, mitochondrial function, and oxidative stress levels were reset to those of younger cells.
The problem was that exposing cells to the Yamanaka factors totally reset the cell type, which is a problem if a heart cell forgets it’s a heart cell while part of the organ! Thankfully, it was soon discovered that exposing cells to the Yamanaka factors for just long enough was enough to reset their cellular age without making them forget what type of cells they were. This was the birth of partial cellular reprogramming.
Now the race is on to bring partial cellular reprogramming to people, but the big question is: can it be made safe for human use? Altos is gearing up to find out and has the funds and the people to do it.
Official launch press release
SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 19, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — Altos Labs™ (Altos™) launched today as a new biotechnology company dedicated to unraveling the deep biology of cellular rejuvenation programming. Altos’ mission is to restore cell health and resilience to reverse disease, injury, and the disabilities that can occur throughout life. The company launches with a community of leading scientists, clinicians, and leaders from both academia and industry working together towards this common mission.
The Altos executive team will be composed of Hal Barron, MD (incoming CEO), Rick Klausner, MD (Chief Scientist and Founder), Hans Bishop (President and Founder), and Ann Lee-Karlon, PhD (Chief Operating Officer). Hal Barron is currently President of R&D and Chief Scientific Officer at GSK and will join Altos as CEO and Board co-chair effective August 1, 2022. Klausner was former director of the National Cancer Institute and entrepreneur, Bishop was former CEO of GRAIL and Juno Therapeutics, and Lee-Karlon was former Senior Vice President at Genentech.
Altos will be initially based in the US in the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego, and in the UK in Cambridge. The company will also have significant collaborations in Japan. Set within these geographies, activity will be organized across the Institutes of Science and the Institute of Medicine. The Altos Institutes of Science will pursue deep scientific questions and integrate their findings into one collaborative research effort. The Altos Institute of Medicine will capture knowledge generated about cell health and programming to develop transformative medicines.
The three Altos Institutes of Science will be led by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, PhD, Wolf Reik, MD, and Peter Walter, PhD. Thore Graepel, PhD, will serve as global head of computational science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Prior to joining Altos, Izpisua Belmonte was professor and chair at the Salk Institute, Reik was director of the Babraham Institute and is an honorary professor at the University of Cambridge, and Walter was professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Graepel previously served as research lead at Google DeepMind and professor at University College London. Within the Institutes of Science, an extraordinary group of Principal Investigators (PIs) will collaboratively pursue the many aspects of cell health and programming.
The Altos Board of Directors and advisors include Nobel Laureates and scientific leaders. The Board will be co-chaired by Rick Klausner, Hans Bishop, and Hal Barron (current director and incoming co-chair) and includes the following Board directors: Frances Arnold, PhD (Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology and Nobel Laureate), Hal Barron, MD (Chief Scientific Officer and President, R&D, of GSK), Jennifer Doudna (Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair and Professor of Chemistry and Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, President of the Innovative Genomics Institute, and Nobel Laureate), Maria Leptin, PhD (President of the European Research Council), Robert Nelsen (Co-founder and Managing Director of ARCH Venture Partners), Rajiv Shah, MD (President of the Rockefeller Foundation), and David Baltimore, PhD (President Emeritus and Judge Shirley Hufstedler Professor of Biology at the California Institute of Technology and Nobel Laureate), as lead independent director. Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD (Director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University and Nobel Laureate), will serve as senior scientific advisor to Altos without remuneration, overseeing research activities in Japan.
“I am deeply honored to have been offered this once in a lifetime opportunity to lead such a unique company with a transformative mission to reverse disease,” said Hal Barron. “It’s clear from work by Shinya Yamanaka, and many others since his initial discoveries, that cells have the ability to rejuvenate, resetting their epigenetic clocks and erasing damage from a myriad of stressors. These insights, combined with major advances in a number of transformative technologies, inspired Altos to reimagine medical treatments where reversing disease for patients of any age is possible.”
Altos is designed to integrate the best features of academia and industry — from academia the freedom to pursue the most challenging problems in biology, and from industry the focus on a shared mission, ability to foster deep collaborations, and the passion and commitment to transform science into medicines.
“Altos seeks to decipher the pathways of cellular rejuvenation programming to create a completely new approach to medicine, one based on the emerging concepts of cellular health,” said Rick Klausner. “Remarkable work over the last few years beginning to quantify cellular health and the mechanisms behind that, coupled with the ability to effectively and safely reprogram cells and tissues via rejuvenation pathways, opens this new vista into the medicine of the future. Altos begins with many of the leading scientists who are creating this new science. Together, we are building a company where many of the world’s best scientists can collaborate internally and externally and develop their research with the speed, mission, and focus of private enterprise. Our success will depend upon a culture of intense collaboration, enthusiasm, and openness.”
Will this be another Calico?
Some people in our community may think that Altos could turn out to be another Google Calico, with lots of hype and little to show in real terms years later. This could, of course, be true, but it is at least equally likely that this could also be an important step forward for our field. Altos has the backing, it has the people, and it has chosen an approach that has huge potential in the context of changing how we age.
We cannot, of course, predict the future, and a lot of this depends on the successful and safe translation of partial cellular reprogramming to people. There is no doubt that something that is so potentially transformative, and could have such a significant impact on aging, is going to need years of testing and refinement.
While enthusiasm for partial cellular reprogramming is currently high, make no mistake: this is something for the long haul. It is our view that we are a good decade or perhaps more away from partial cellular reprogramming reaching people. This is due to the complexity of the biology involved, the clinical trial process, and the inevitable setbacks on the road to getting it to work safely.
We wish Altos the best of luck, and we will be following this company’s progress in the coming years. Meanwhile, while we wait for this and other technologies to arrive, we should all strive to stay as healthy and active as possible.