In recent years a growing network of supporters of longevity science has emerged in the Bay Area entrepreneurial and venture community. It is a highly networked environment, and visible signs such as the Health Extension meetings are really just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. It is no accident that the SENS Research Foundation and its coordination of rejuvenation biotechnology research is based in the Bay Area: venture capitalist turned philanthropist Peter Thiel was one of the early high net worth donors to SENS research, and folk in the software engineering community have always made up a sizable fraction of the donors and supporters of first the Methuselah Foundation and then the SENS Research Foundation after it was spun off as an independent organization. Medicine is engineering, and aging is an engineering problem asking for a solution: this is something that is perhaps more clearly visible to people who have written code for a living at some point in their careers.
Which is not to skip over the fact that there is a thriving medical biotech venture community in that part of the world as well. It just doesn't get as much press, and the people involved have historically tended to be just as conservative and quiet about the prospects for treating aging as the rest of the life science research community. Sometimes change must come from the outside, which is exactly what happened in this case.
Before funding SENS research the Methuselah Foundation initially focused entirely on the Mprize: a research prize aiming to spur the research community into doing more work and speaking more publicly about efforts to extend healthy life span and produce rejuvenation in the old. At the time the prize launched, the silence of the research community and their unwillingness to push the boundaries, educate the public, and get on with treating aging was a real issue and a cultural roadblock to progress. That this state of affairs has changed dramatically is due in no small part to the efforts of the Methuselah Foundation and the networking that took place as a direct consequence of the existence of a research prize.
The prize continued over the years, and still runs today to encourage researchers to put in more work on extending healthy life spans in mammals. In a different world the Mprize might still be generating meaningful levels of press and attention even now, but it was hampered by an unfortunate happenstance of research, in that one of the first methods discovered to extend life span in mice was so effective that it has yet to be surpassed or even matched, more than ten years later. It is hard to have a contest when there are no new winners emerging on a short enough time frame to interest the public. For my money, I'd wager that producing mice that live longer than growth hormone receptor knockout mutants won't happen without the implementation of SENS rejuvenation treatments, ways to extend life by repairing damage (and thus reversing aging) rather than slowing the progression of damage (and thus slowing aging).
Nonetheless, the Mprize was a successful vehicle to produce change in the aging research community: this is the interesting thing about research prizes, that they don't have to achieve their stated competitive goals or even look like they worked as a contest in order to produce the desired outcome, a revival of effort in a specific field of research and development. Success is all about networking and attention, which in turn leads to fundraising and greater activity where before there was little. The Methuselah Foundation continues to run the Mprize, but is presently more focused on speeding up organ tissue engineering through the New Organ Prize: working to ensure that patient-specific organs built from stem cells exist soon rather than twenty years to thirty years from now.
So perhaps this leaves a space for a next generation of research prizes in longevity science, and it turns out that folk in the Bay Area venture community think that is the case - and if there is one thing that these people are good at, it is networking, the lifeblood of a research prize initiative. So take a little time to peruse the Palo Alto Longevity Prize and note the panoply of advisors and research teams signed up to compete. The actual details of the prize are of technical interest, especially since they lean in the direction of supporting repair over slowing aging, but they are far less important than what is taking place behind the scenes as a result of this initiative:
Just six decades after Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the aviation age, President Kennedy pronounced a moonshot: fly people to the moon and back. Eight years later, the mission was accomplished. Now, six decades after James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the code of life, it is time to embark on another historic mission: hack the code of life and cure aging.
The Palo Alto Longevity Prize (the "Prize") is a $1 million life science competition dedicated to ending aging. Ours is one of a growing number of initiatives around the world pursuing this goal - the more shots on goal the better. Through an incentive prize, our specific aim is to nurture innovations that end aging by restoring the body's homeostatic capacity and promoting the extension of a sustained and healthy lifespan.
There are two prizes available and teams may compete for one or both prizes:
1) 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.
2) 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.
To enable a rapid commercial path forward for the innovations, the sponsor of the Prize will be contributing an existing pool of relevant intellectual property to the Prize effort.