For now, no one has a firm idea what these future treatments could look like. Some say they will be genetic therapies added to people’s DNA; others expect it’s possible to discover chemical pills that do the job. One proponent of the technology, David Sinclair, who runs an aging-research lab at Harvard University, says it could allow people to live much longer than they do today. “I predict one day it will be normal to go to a doctor and get a prescription for a medicine that will take you back a decade,” Sinclair said at the same California event. “There is no reason we couldn’t live 200 years.”
It’s this type of claim that raises so much skepticism. Critics see ballooning hype, runaway egos, and science that’s on uncertain ground. But the doubters this year were drowned out by the sound of stampeding investors. In addition to Altos, whose $3 billion ranked as possibly the single largest startup fundraising drive in biotech history, the cryptocurrency billionaire Brian Armstrong, the cofounder of Coinbase, helped bring $105 million into his own reprogramming company, NewLimit, whose mission he says is “radical extension of human health span.” Retro Biosciences, which says it wants to “increase healthy human lifespan by 10 years,” raised $180 million.
These huge expenditures are being made despite the fact that scientists still disagree on the causes of aging. Indeed, there’s no real consensus on when in life aging even begins. Some say it starts at conception, while others think it’s at birth or after puberty.
“There is no reason we couldn’t live 200 years.”
David Sinclair, Harvard University
But all the unknowns are part of what makes the reprogramming phenomenon so attractive. Klausner admits that the details of why reprogramming works remain a “complete mystery,” but that too helps explain the sudden rush to invest in the idea. If there is a fountain of youth in the genome, the first to locate it could reinvent medicine and revolutionize how we treat the myriad of diseases that plague our old age.
To get a reality check on Klausner’s lecture, I asked an embryologist and stem-cell specialist, Alfonso Martinez Arias, to watch a recording. Martinez, whose lab is at the Pompeu Fabra University, in Barcelona, wrote back that he had to hold his stomach while he watched, so grandiose were the claims. “He was evangelical about something which, at the moment, is interesting but very preliminary and [on] shaky ground,” says Martinez. Klausner was speaking “as if he had drunk some Kool-Aid.”
Martinez says that to him, Altos is an alchemy project, the kind that medieval rulers once financed in the search for the philosopher’s stone—a substance they believed could turn lead into gold, not to mention cure all disease. Martinez wasn’t entirely negative, though. “There are people at Altos who know how to do science,” he says. And, he notes, even alchemists ended up making valuable discoveries.
The basic technique Altos is exploring is the procedure discovered in 2006 by the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, who is now a scientific advisor to the company. The four proteins (now called “Yamanaka factors”) that he and his students identified could cause ordinary cells to turn into potent stem cells, just like those found in embryos. This discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in medicine in 2012.
“Is there any evidence for your $3 billion project?”
Martin Borch Jensen, Gordian Biotechnology
Initially, Yamanaka’s discovery was employed to reprogram cells from patients to make stem cells, which could then be used to try to manufacture transplantable tissues, retina cells, or neurons. Other scientists wondered what would happen if they introduced Yamanaka’s factors into living animals. In 2013, a Spanish team did exactly that, with gruesome results. The mice sprouted tumors called teratomas, blobs of renegade embryonic tissue.