Contest offers $101M for ways to boost healthy lifespan

Some of the biggest names in longevity research — and at least one Seattle biotech startup — say they’ll enter a $101 million, seven-year competition to turn back the clock on the effects of aging by at least 10 years.

XPRIZE Healthspan was unveiled today at a conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It’s the richest incentive-based technology competition ever created by the XPRIZE foundation, beating out a $100 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal contest that’s being funded by Elon Musk, the world’s richest (and most controversial) billionaire.

The top prize in the Healthspan contest will go to the team that does the best job of creating a therapy that can be administered in a year or less, leading to the restoration of at least 10 years’ worth of muscular function, cognition and immune function in people aged 65 to 80.

Peter Diamandis, the founder and executive chairman of XPRIZE, said the concept started out as a longevity prize, but the program’s planners “realized that the idea of waiting 20 years to see if someone won the prize was probably impractical.”

“We shifted from longevity to really looking at age reversal first, and then functional restoration second,” Diamandis explained. “You see, it doesn’t really matter what your epigenetic age is. Do you actually feel younger? Do you have the muscle, immune and cognition that you had 10 or 20 years ago? Because at the end of the game, that’s what really matters.”


Dog Aging Project aims to enlist 10,000 canines

Dog Aging Project
The organizers of the Dog Aging Project plan to use big-data tools to study canine health – and apply their findings to human health issues as well. (Dog Aging Project / UW / Texas A&M Photo)

Scientists are looking for 10,000 good dogs to take part in a 10-year effort aimed at tracking their health and identifying factors that can lengthen their lifespan.

The pets that are selected for the Dog Aging Project could come in for some scientific pampering, including genome sequencing and health assessments.

But that doesn’t mean the project’s organizers at the University of Washington, Texas A&M University and other research institutions are totally going to the dogs. The larger purpose of the campaign — and the reason it’s getting $15 million in direct funding from the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health — is to pick up new clues about the aging process in humans.

Researchers can use dogs as a model for human health studies, just as they use lab mice, said project co-director Matt Kaeberlein, a professor of pathology at the UW School of Medicine. And for this project’s purposes, pets bring an extra advantage.

“Unlike laboratory animals, they also share our environment,” he told GeekWire. “So we absolutely believe that, in that respect, pet dogs are going to be superior to laboratory models for understanding the aging process in humans, because we’re able to capture that environmental diversity.”

Kaeberlein and his colleagues have been ramping up the project for several years, but now they’re ready for prime time: The official launch comes today in Austin, Texas, at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.

Dog owners can nominate their canines as candidates for study on The nomination process entails setting up a secure user portal and providing health and lifestyle information about their dogs. Participants will also be asked to share their pets’ veterinary medical records.

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Scientists map widening gap in longevity

Life expectancy map
This chart maps the lows and the highs in average life expectancy as of 2014. (Dwyer-Lindgren et al., UW / IHME via JAMA Internal Medicine)

A county-by-county survey of U.S. life expectancy reports a 20-year gap between the lows and the highs – a gap that correlates with socioeconomic factors, race and ethnicity, and the availability of health care as well as preventable risk factors such as obesity and smoking.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggests that the gap is widening.

“This is way worse than any of us had assumed,” UW professor Ali Mokdad, who leads U.S. county health research at the institute, told The Guardian.

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BioViva makes progress in anti-aging quest

Image: Telomeres
Telomeres, highlighted in green, serve as protective DNA caps for the cell’s chromosomes. (Illustration courtesy of BioViva USA)

The way BioViva founder Elizabeth Parrish sees it, biological aging is a disease – and she’s willing to bet her life on a cure.

Last fall, the 45-year-old Seattle-area woman underwent an experimental type of gene therapy aimed at addressing some of the big effects of aging, including loss of muscle mass and a shortening of the chromosomes’ telomeres. The procedure was reportedly done in Colombia, to get around U.S. regulations.

The idea of having gene therapy done on yourself raised eyebrows in the biotech community, but Parrish was unfazed.

“I 100 percent believe that it will work, or else I wouldn’t have done it,” Parrish told GeekWire during an interview in February. “I didn’t try to flame out in glory. The research shows that it should absolutely work.”

Now BioViva is reporting that it does seem to work, at least on Parrish’s telomeres. And that’s likely to fuel a debate over the widening scientific quest for greater longevity – conducted not only by BioViva, but by other ventures such as Human Longevity Inc. This week, Human Longevity announced a 10-year deal with AstraZeneca to analyze 500,000 DNA samples for anti-aging clues.

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