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Wolf Reik to head up Cambridge arm as $3bn Altos Labs launches



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It represents the biggest biotech launch of all time – with $3billion backing, a board boasting Nobel laureates and reportedly the support of the world’s richest person – and it will have a Cambridge base.

Altos Labs has emerged from stealth mode with a mission to transform medicine through cellular rejuvenation programming.

Prof Wolf Reik. Picture: Keith Heppell
Prof Wolf Reik. Picture: Keith Heppell

It has appointed epigenetics expert Prof Wolf Reik – formerly director of the Babraham Institute – as director of its Cambridge Institute of Science, which will open at Granta Park in early summer. The company will also be based in the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego, with “significant collaborations” in Japan.

Prof Reik told the Cambridge Independent: “I’m excited about Altos bringing together the best minds with the freedom to explore the most exciting ideas and to developing a centre of expertise and innovation here in Cambridge. The Babraham Institute has been a wonderfully supportive home for our science for decades, with all the benefits of the wider Cambridge community. There is enormous strength in Cambridge’s life sciences sector and Altos is excited to join it with a commitment to collaboration and openness.”

Hal Barron, who is currently president of R&D and chief scientific officer at GSK, will take up the role of Altos Labs’ CEO from August 1. He will be co-chair of the board with founder and chief scientist Rick Klausner, the former director of the National Cancer Institute, and president and founder Hans Bishop, the former CEO of GRAIL and Juno Therapeutics.

Among the Nobel laureates supporting Altos will be Shinya Yamanaka, director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University, who will serve as a senior scientific advisor to Altos without remuneration, overseeing research activities in Japan.

Wolf Reik FRS is a molecular biologist, senior group leader and associate director at the Babraham Institute, professor of Epigenetics at the University of Cambridge and associate faculty at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Picture: Keith Heppell. (35708771)
Wolf Reik FRS is a molecular biologist, senior group leader and associate director at the Babraham Institute, professor of Epigenetics at the University of Cambridge and associate faculty at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Picture: Keith Heppell. (35708771)

Hal Barron said: “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.”

Prof Reik, who remains at Babraham for now and is also an honorary professor at the University of Cambridge, is one of the world’s leading experts in epigenetics, which describes genetic control by factors other than our DNA. Epigenetic changes – which can be caused by our environment or behaviour – can switch genes on or off and determine which proteins are transcribed. His research has focused on understanding the epigenetic mechanisms governing mammalian development and ageing.

Dr Simon Cook, interim director of the Babraham Institute, said: “Whilst we are sorry to say goodbye to Wolf, we are excited to see him step into this new endeavour, which seeks to build on new understanding of the fundamental principles of human biology to improve health and wellbeing. As scientists committed to that aim, we can’t fail to be excited by this opportunity.”

The company will be organised across Institutes of Science – pursuing deep scientific questions and integrating findings into one collaborative research effort – and an Institute of Medicine, which will capture knowledge generated about cell health and programming to develop transformative medicines.

Prof Wolf Reik at the Babraham Institute. Picture: Keith Heppell
Prof Wolf Reik at the Babraham Institute. Picture: Keith Heppell

The focus will be on increasing our ‘healthspan’ – in other words, helping to live a healthy life for longer.

Frances Arnold, a board member and Nobel laureate, suggested: “This remarkable team is poised to discover secrets of cellular health and transform the way we think about disease. Now more than ever is the time to restructure our approach to health by understanding, slowing, and even reversing the processes that lead to illness and death.”

“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.”

Meanwhile Frances Arnold, a board member and Nobel laureate, suggested: “This remarkable team is poised to discover secrets of cellular health and transform the way we think about disease. Now more than ever is the time to restructure our approach to health by understanding, slowing, and even reversing the processes that lead to illness and death.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is believed to be among its backers, along with fellow billionaire Yuri Milner.

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