How Jeff Bezos is backing one of the world's top scientists in a bid to help us all live longer

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is amongst the billionaire-backers of Altos Labs. Credit: AP

One of the world's top scientists is taking on the grim reaper and will be the new CEO of a start-up backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos which aims to extend human life by ending diseases associated with age.

Dr Hal Barron, the chief scientific officer at UK drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), is to join Altos Labs, where he will likely earn millions of pounds.

In 2020, the 59-year-old was reportedly paid £8.2 million by GSK — more than its chief executive.

Dr Hal Barron will be the new CEO of Altos Labs. Credit: Altos Labs

Altos Labs - which received £2.2 billion in funding last week - will focus on “cellular programming”, a technique that can already be used to rejuvenate individual cells in a laboratory.

The hope is that technology will be developed which will allow cells to be biologically reprogrammed, so that they are rejuvenated and will prolong human life by banishing diseases associated with age, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.

The Silicon Valley-based start up is much better funded than most, with financial backers thought to include the world's second-richest person, Bezos, 58, who is estimated to be worth £138 billion, and Yuri Milner, 60, a Russian-born internet mogul who is worth about £3.67 billion.Already the company's board is brimming with Nobel Laureates.

While Altos will be headquartered in California, it will have a base in Cambridge which will be run by Dr Wolf Reik, honorary professor of epigenetics (the study of how your behaviours and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work) at the city's world-famous university.

As well as Dr Barron, Altos has attracted other top talent including Nobel Prize-winning stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka, who sits on its scientific advisory board in an unpaid role. 

He stunned the research community in the 2000s with a finding that cells can be “reprogrammed” to revert back into an earlier state with the properties of embryonic stem cells that make up the building blocks of new animals, by adding just four specific proteins to cells.

Another recruit to Altos, Professor Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, later showed the "Yamanaka factors" could be applied to living mice to achieve signs of age reversal, leading him to suggest that the four proteins were tantamount to an "elixir of life". However, this technology also caused tumours known as teratomas.

Teratomas can contain different types of tissue such as bone, teeth, muscle, and hair, and can be either cancerous or benign.Also on the board is Jennifer Doudna who won the 2020 Nobel prize for chemistry for her work on Crispr, a gene editing tool. 

For now though, anyone wishing to prolong their life, the current advice is to eat healthily, exercise regularly, get a good night's sleep, and avoid excessive drinking, smoking and taking drugs.