Noting the Inaugural Breakthrough Prize Awards

The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences is a new and narrowly focused Nobel-like initiative launched by a noteworthy Russian entrepreneur in collaboration with some of the high net worth individuals that the California start up community has produced over the past decade. The tagline is much as follows:

Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences is founded by Art Levinson, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Yuri Milner to recognize excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life. The prize is administered by the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to advancing breakthrough research, celebrating scientists and generating excitement about the pursuit of science as a career.

Note that "extending human life" in the middle there. It looks like we'll have to wait to see whether the ongoing prize initiative will place any real emphasis on that goal, however. The eleven inaugural awards of $3 million each went to researchers who don't have a great deal to do with longevity research.

Eleven scientists, most of them American, were scheduled to be named on Wednesday as the first winners of the world's richest academic prize for medicine and biology - $3 million each, more than twice the amount of the Nobel Prize. The award, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, was established by four Internet titans led by Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur and philanthropist who caused a stir last summer when he began giving physicists $3 million awards.

Cancer and its mechanisms form the dominant theme in this first set of awards. In some cases the scientists' work touches on aging, such as the telomere research of Titia de Lange, but then so do a great many other line items - it's quite possible to run a very successful career as a telomere researcher without contributing towards efforts to extend human life by intervening in the aging process.

That said: this is an entirely sensible and rational effort. In the long view the only thing that really matters is progress in technology - not money, not politics, not the chatter of the masses, but technology. What was built and invented, and how fast it arrived. What use is money if you can't use it to change the world for the better? The best way to do that today is through spurring progress in biotechnology. The greatest gains for all humanity, wealthy and poor alike, over the decades to come will be attained through advances derived from the life sciences: better medicine, longer lives, and ultimately the defeat of degenerative aging.

This Nobel for the 21st century is a step in the right direction and to be applauded. It is encouraging to see that the right ideas about medicine, biotechnology, and the near-term promise of radical, transformative applications are percolating through the community of high net worth individuals - that some are seeing clearly enough how and why they can make a difference. Still, the Breakthrough Prize is a drop in the bucket of what could be accomplished should any similarly-sized group of billionaires decide to devote a few hundred million dollars towards developing rejuvenation biotechnologies of the sort specified in detail in the SENS plan.

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