GSK’s top scientist quits to join anti-ageing start-up Altos Labs

GSK’s top scientist quits to help make billionaires live for ever: Hal Barron joins Jeff Bezos-backed anti-ageing start-up Altos Labs

The top scientist at pharma giant Glaxosmithkline has jumped ship to run a Silicon Valley start-up focused on anti-ageing technology.

In a setback for chief executive Emma Walmsley, veteran drug developer Hal Barron will step down as chief scientific officer in August.

He will become chief executive and co-chairman of Altos Labs, which is backed by billionaires including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and is hiring scientists around the world to explore how to reverse the ageing process.

Veteran drug developer Hal Barron will step down as Glaxosmithkline’s chief scientific officer in August to become chief executive and co-chairman of Altos Labs

Barron, 59, will remain on the board as a non-executive director for three years, supporting the firm’s research and development efforts.

Tony Wood, GSK’s senior vice-president of medical science and technology, will take over as chief scientific officer having joined the company from Pfizer in 2017.

Wood has worked on the launch of several key medicines including asthma treatment Nucala and HIV drug Cabenuva.

Altos, which has operations in Silicon Valley and San Diego in California, and Cambridge in the UK, is aiming to develop technology that can rejuvenate the body’s cells and extend lives.

Backers are said to include Bezos as well as Russian billionaire venture capitalist Yuri Milner. 

Aside from Barron, the firm has attracted other top talent including Nobel Prize-winning stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka, who sits on its scientific advisory board.

Barron said: ‘I am deeply honoured to have been offered this once in a lifetime opportunity to lead such a unique company with a transformative mission to reverse disease.’

Walmsley, 52, said the Altos opportunity was unique for Barron, and that GSK was ‘pleased’ that it will continue to benefit from his expertise at the board.

She added that Wood was ‘an outstanding scientist who is highly respected’ and that he was ‘perfectly placed’ to build on Barron’s progress.

Setback: The departure of Barron will be a heavy blow for boss Emma Walmsley (pictured)

Setback: The departure of Barron will be a heavy blow for boss Emma Walmsley (pictured)

Alistair Campbell, an analyst at broker Liberum, said the exit was ‘a surprise’ given Barron’s importance. But he added Wood was ‘very closely aligned’ with Barron so the transition was likely to be ‘seamless’ without any ‘serious strategic implications’.

The sentiment was shared by analysts at Bank of America, who said Wood was a ‘continuity candidate’ but did little to address their concerns over the ‘lack of progress’ in GSK’s drug pipeline.

The company’s shares, which were this week boosted by news of a £50billion bid from Unilever for its consumer healthcare arm, fell 2.1 per cent, or 348p, to 1666.4p.

Barron’s departure will be a heavy blow for Walmsley, who once joked that she spent more time choosing him as chief scientist than she did picking her husband.

She went to great lengths to accommodate the California-based scientist during his tenure, including opening a small office in Barron’s home of San Francisco when he agreed to join the company so he could stay there with his wife and two children.

Barron was even paid more than Walmsley in 2020, receiving a package of around £8.2million compared to her £7million, according to the latest annual report.

At the time, Barron’s hiring was seen as a major coup shortly after she took over running the group.

However, his exit is likely to increase concerns from shareholders who have questioned her lack of a scientific background.

It will also provide ammunition to activist investors Elliott Management and Bluebell Capital, who have been pushing for Walmsley to reapply for her own job while also criticising her strategy of splitting off the consumer healthcare business, which includes brands such as Sensodyne toothpaste and Panadol painkillers, into a separately listed company later this year.

The remaining part of the business will then turn its focus toward improving its pipeline of drugs and vaccines.

However, there are fears this strategy could be imperilled by Barron’s departure.

Billionaires in hunt for secret to eternal youth 

While young people dream of being rich, rich people dream of being young.

So some of the world’s wealthiest individuals are ploughing money into research.

A burgeoning industry in Silicon Valley is exploring how to halt ageing.

Investors in anti-ageing include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (pictured with partner Lauren Sanchez), Google founder Larry Page and British tycoon Jim Mellon

Investors in anti-ageing include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (pictured with partner Lauren Sanchez), Google founder Larry Page and British tycoon Jim Mellon

Investors include everyone from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (pictured with partner Lauren Sanchez) and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner to Google founder Larry Page and British tycoon Jim Mellon.

Biological reprogramming was discovered in 2006 by Shinya Yamanaka, while a study in 2016 led by biochemist Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte showed it extended the lives of mice by six weeks – a significant increase on their normal lifespan. Both are now involved with Altos.

Others in the field include Unity Biotechnology, which has attracted billionaires including Bezos and Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Paypal. Calico Labs is backed by Google under Page. Mellon backs AgeX Therapeutics, a California firm.

While no anti-ageing tech has been tested on humans, market research group P&S Intelligence has estimated that the market could be worth £309bn by 2030.