Roll back aging, win $1 million
James Benninger/Flickr/Creative Commons

Roll back aging, win $1 million

Google has already gotten into the age-fighting business. Now another Silicon Valley initiative is taking aim at the science of boosting longevity. The Palo Alto Longevity Prize, announced yesterday at a shindig in San Francisco, is offering $1 million to scientists who can solve two aging-related research challenges.

Joon Yun, an M.D. who is president of the health care investment firm Palo Alto Investors in California, put up the prize money. Researchers have plenty of fresh ideas about how to boost health and stretch lifespan, but few were getting public attention, he says. “We needed a way to accelerate these ideas into action.”

The prize’s immodest goal is to stop aging, but it’s starting out with two less ambitious competitions that could represent steps toward that objective. One $500,000 award will go to the research team that can restore an older animal’s homeostatic capacity—its ability to balance its internal conditions—to a youthful level. As a gauge of that capacity, the prize organizers selected variability in heart rate. Not only is reduced variability linked to age-related diseases, Yun says, but heart rate is also easy and cheap to measure, potentially allowing more scientists to take part in the challenge.

The other $500,000 award will go to researchers who induce a lifespan increase of 50% in a laboratory animal. In both challenges, the standard of comparison will be set using a “reference mammal” whose identity the prize’s organizers are not disclosing to the public. (Mice, rats, and other mammals are commonly used in aging research.)

Eleven scientific teams have already signed up to take part. They found out about the project by word of mouth, Yun says, and are pursuing approaches ranging from using stem cells to replace faltering cells, to stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which manages maintenance functions such as digestion and saliva secretion. Any researchers who think they have a bright idea can sign up no later than June 2015. Teams will have to pay an entry fee of $1000 or $2000, depending on when they enroll. The deadline to produce results for the homeostatic challenge is June 2016; the longevity competition will run until September 2018.

Although the prize doesn’t include money to conduct the research, the organizers will help scientists make contact with potential funders, notes Keith Powers, who is the producer of the prize. Moreover, he says, “the prize mechanism can draw investors” because it makes potential donors aware of the research and informs them about how to get involved.

Still, some researchers who study aging are skeptical. Arlan Richardson, a physiologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, says that the challenges could have a beneficial effect by increasing public interest and thus drawing money to aging research. But Richardson questions their scientific value and practicality.

He’s concerned, for example, about the results of the longevity challenge. Conducting a lifespan experiment in mice takes about 3.5 years, he says, and the results then need to be verified, preferably by a different lab. Richardson notes that the literature is littered with examples of dramatic lifespan increases in experimental animals that dwindled or disappeared when researchers attempted to replicate them. “Frankly, from a scientific standpoint it’s going to have very little impact,” he says of the prize.