Joon Yun launched a $1 million prize challenging scientists to “hack the code of life” and push human lifespan past its apparent maximum of about 120 years (the longest known/confirmed lifespan was 122 years).
A $500,000 Homeostatic Capacity Prize will be awarded to the first team to demonstrate that it can restore homeostatic capacity (using heart rate variability as the surrogate measure) of an aging reference mammal to that of a young adult.
A $500,000 Longevity Demonstration Prize will be awarded to the first team that can extend the lifespan of its reference mammal by 50% of acceptable published norms. Demonstration must use an approach that restores homeostatic capacity to increase lifespan.
In addition to the $1 million cash prize, the Palo Alto Prize is also working with a number of angel investors, venture capital firms, corporate venture arms, institutions and private foundations to provide access to additional capital to the teams during the competition. While the Palo Alto Prize will help facilitate introductions, all transactions and due diligence will be done privately between the teams and potential investors and philanthropists.
15 scientific teams have so far entered the Palo Alto Longevity Prize which will be awarded in the first instance for restoring vitality and extending lifespan in mice by 50%. But Yun has deep pockets and expects to put up more money for progressively greater feats. He says this is a moral rather than personal quest. Our lives and society are troubled by growing numbers of loved ones lost to age-related disease and suffering extended periods of decrepitude, which is costing economies. Yun has an impressive list of nearly 50 advisers, including scientists from some of America’s top universities.
In September 2013 Google announced the creation of Calico, short for the California Life Company. Its mission is to reverse engineer the biology that controls lifespan and “devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives”. Though much mystery surrounds the new biotech company, it seems to be looking in part to develop age-defying drugs. In April 2014 it recruited Cynthia Kenyon, a scientist acclaimed for work that included genetically engineering roundworms to live up to six times longer than normal, and who has spoken of dreaming of applying her discoveries to people
In March 2014, pioneering American biologist and technologist Craig Venter – along with the tech entrepreneur founder of the X Prize Foundation, Peter Diamandis – announced a new company called Human Longevity Inc. It isn’t aimed at developing anti-aging drugs or competing with Calico, says Venter. But it plans to create a giant database of 1 million human genome sequences by 2020, including from supercentenarians. Venter says that data should shed important new light on what makes for a longer, healthier life, and expects others working on life extension to use his database. “Our approach can help Calico immensely and if their approach is at the middle of everything.”
Since 2009, Aubrey de Grey has been chief scientific officer at his own charity, the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (Sens) Research Foundation. Including an annual contribution (about $600,000 a year) from Peter Thiel, a billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and money from his own inheritance, he funds about $5 million of research annually.
Scientists have already successfully intervened in aging in a variety of animal species and researchers say there is reason to believe it could be achieved in people. “We have really turned a corner,” says Brian Kennedy, director of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, adding that five years ago the scientific consensus was that aging research was interesting but unlikely to lead to anything practical. “We’re now at the point where it’s easy to extend the lifespan of a mouse. That’s not the question any more, it’s can we do this in humans? And I don’t see any reason why we can’t,” says David Sinclair, a researcher based at Harvard.
Reason for optimism comes after several different approaches have yielded promising results. Some existing drugs, such as the diabetes drug metformin, have serendipitously turned out to display age-defying effects, for example. Several drugs are in development that mimic the mechanisms that cause lab animals fed carefully calorie-restricted diets to live longer. Others copy the effects of genes that occur in long-lived people. One drug already in clinical trials is rapamycin, which is normally used to aid organ transplants and treat rare cancers. It has been shown to extend the life of mice by 25%, the greatest achieved so far with a drug, and protect them against diseases of aging including cancer and neurodegeneration.
A recent clinical trial by Novartis, in healthy elderly volunteers in Australia and New Zealand, found a variant of the drug enhanced their response to flu vaccine by 20% – our immunity to flu being something that declines with old age.
“[This was] the first [trial] to take a drug suspected to slow aging, and examine whether it slows or reverses a property of aging in older, healthy individuals,” says Kennedy
One of the more unusual approaches being tested is using blood from the young to reinvigorate the old. The idea was borne out in experiments which showed blood plasma from young mice restored mental capabilities of old mice. A human trial under way is testing whether Alzhemier’s patients who receive blood transfusions from young people experience a similar effect.
James Kirkland, a researcher who studies aging at the Mayo Clinic, says he knows of about 20 drugs now – more than six of which had been written up in scientific journals – that extended the lifespan or healthspan of mice. The aim is to begin tests in humans, but clinical studies of aging are difficult because of the length of our lives, though there are ways around this such as testing the drugs against single conditions in elderly patients and looking for signs of improvements in other conditions at the same time
George feels that reversing aging is an easier goal than slowing aging. There has been proof of reversing aging with the resetting of cells back to a pluripotent stem cell state.
Reversing aging is science which is faster to test. Slowing aging can take at least 5 years and often decades to prove, while reversing aging can be done quickly if biomarkers are reversed or reset.
George Church plans to use CRISPR gene therapy to incorporate what they learn from the supercentenarian studies, long lived animals (tortoises) and whatever they must create new using synthetic biology.
Scientists at the University of Liverpool have sequenced the genome of the bowhead whale, estimated to live for more than 200 years with low incidence of disease.
The bowhead whale is the longest living mammal on earth. The team wanted to understand why they live so long and don’t succumb to some of the same illnesses as humans do earlier in life.
Sequencing of the bowhead whale showed changes in genetic information that related to cell division, DNA repair, disease and aging that with further analysis, could help inform future studies in longevity and cancer resistance.
In their findings published in the journal Cell Reports, the team found as many as 80 candidate genes that may help protect the whale from cancer or contribute to it being the longest living mammal on earth. The team found that the whales have genes related to DNA repair, as well as those regulating how cells proliferate, that differ from those found in humans.
“We know DNA damage and DNA mutation are important for cancer. So when we find genes related to DNA repair and DNA damage responses, we think maybe this could be involved in longevity and disease resistance of the bowhead,” Magalheas said. “In that sense, you don’t find a fountain of youth in the genome but you find some promising leads.”
Longevity work on Bowhead Whales was funded by SENS related organizations
Two groups which funded most of the whale research — the Life Extension Foundation and the Methuselah Foundation — are seeking that magic potion. Life Extension focuses on such things as hormonal and nutritional supplements to fight aging while Methuselah is heavily invested in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine “to create a world where 90 year olds can be as health as 50 year olds, by 2030.”
SOURCES – Guardian UK, Palo Alto Longevity Prize, Cell Reports, Methuselah Foundation, SENS