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Biotechnology and health

The X Prize is taking aim at aging with a new $101 million award

Any team that can restore at least a decade’s worth of muscle, brain, and immune function in older adults will claim the top prize.

November 29, 2023
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Stephanie Arnett/MITTR | Getty

Money can’t buy happiness, but X Prize founder Peter Diamandis hopes it might be able to buy better health. Today the X Prize Foundation, which funds global competitions to spark development of breakthrough technologies, announced a new $101 million prize—the largest yet—to address the mental and physical decline that comes with aging. The winners will have to prove by 2030 that their intervention can turn back the clock in older adults by at least a decade in three key areas: cognition, immunity, and muscle function.

“Healthy aging is not a luxury but a necessity,” said Jaimie Justice, an aging expert and executive vice president of the X Prize’s health domain, at the launch.  “What we've needed is a call to arms.”

The intent isn’t to reverse aging per se, says Diamandis, but rather to restore some of the function we lose as we age. Life expectancy has more than doubled in the last century, but many people spend their final years dealing with a host of chronic diseases and other age-related ailments. “At the end of the day, what do people really want? To feel great, to feel vibrant,” he says.

The prize is welcome news for researchers developing therapies to target aging. Although several high-profile billionaires have invested in longevity companies, “most investor dollars in the space go towards treating specific diseases, including the chronic diseases of aging,” said James Peyer, CEO of Cambrian Bio, in an email. When the focus is a single disease, there’s a clear path to regulatory approval.

But many researchers believe that age-related diseases such as heart attacks, cancer, and Alzheimer’s are caused by the aging process itself. A therapy targeting that process could, in theory, prevent or delay the onset of those diseases. The X Prize purse could help fund a trial to demonstrate that, Peyer says: “That outcome trial is what the FDA and other regulators will ultimately require for an approval.”

To win the competition, teams have to develop a “proactive, accessible therapeutic” that improves muscle, cognition, and immune function by an amount equivalent to a 10- to 20-year reduction in age in healthy people aged 65 to 80. That could be a drug that’s already approved, like rapamycin, the immunosuppressant that has shown a great deal of promise in mice; a compound that targets ‘zombie’ cells that stop replicating but don’t die; a more radical strategy like reprogramming cells to prompt them to rejuvenate; or something entirely new. “We're trying to promote disruptive change,” Diamandis says. He hopes the large prize will convince hundreds or even thousands of teams to compete. 

Matt Kaeberlein, a researcher who studies aging at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, says the foundation has set the bar high, but not too high. “We know you can improve health, and that’s really what this prize is for,” he says. He suspects even rigorous changes in diet, nutrition, and sleep might be enough to improve muscle function by 10 years.

Still, measuring success could prove tricky. “I personally would like to see a little bit more specifics on how they’re going to assess this improvement in biological age parameters,” Kaeberlein says. Measuring improvements in muscle function could involve simple assessments like testing grip strength, he says. And measuring vaccine response is a standard way to test immune function. “Cognition is much more variable,” he says. So that to me is a little bit murky.

The guidelines released by the foundation offer some insight into the kinds of endpoints the trial might measure. For muscle function, tests could include a walk or exercise test, measurements of muscle volume, and a physical performance battery. Cognition-related endpoints could include memory tests and cognitive assessments. And immune function assessments might include white blood cell counts, immune cell ratios, and an antibody response to a vaccine challenge. “This is not a fixed document. This is where the conversation starts,” Justice said at the launch. “We're looking for feedback from the community over the next six months. Are we measuring the right things? Are we measuring them the right way?”

Producing the final list of endpoints won’t be easy. “This is really difficult to come up with the clinical outcomes,” says Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a member of the X Prize’s scientific advisory committee for the aging competition,. “Maybe biomarkers will be part of it. But we don’t know which they are yet.”

Still, Kaeberlein says the team that will be making these decisions is smart and credible. “I'm very pleased to see that people who I respect are involved. And I think that gives me a lot of confidence that they'll get it right.” 

Eyes on the prize

The idea behind the X Prize model is simple. A big cash prize will fuel competition that leads to “radical innovation.” Sometimes this works. The first X Prize, in 1996, led to the first private space flight. Sometimes, however, the model fails. In 2013, the foundation canceled its genomics competition because it was “outpaced by innovation.” The Lunar X Prize ended in 2018 with no winner, although the foundation awarded a million dollars the following year to a company that crash-landed on the moon.

An X Prize competition targeting aging has been in the works for years, fueled by discussions between Diamandis, longevity investor Sergey Young, eccentric futurist and researcher Aubrey de Grey, and Michael Antonov, a longevity enthusiast and cofounder of the Facebook-owned virtual-reality company Oculus. Young and Antonov provided seed funding to study the feasibility of the prize.

Diamandis announced the $101 million prize today at the Global Healthspan Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, an event hosted by Hevolution, a nonprofit organization launched by the Saudi royal family in 2021 that plans to spend a billion dollars a year on aging research. Hevolution is providing the largest chunk of the X Prize purse, $40 million. The other major funder is SOLVE FSHD, an organization established by the Lululemon founder Chip Wilson to help find a cure for facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD), a muscle disorder that affects Wilson and about 30,000 other people worldwide. SOLVE contributed $26 million to the prize, and kicked in an additional $10 million for any team developing a therapy that can provide a 10-year improvement in muscle function for people with FSHD. 

The purse will be doled out in three chunks. Two years in, as many as 40 teams will receive $250,000 “to anoint them as one of the top teams,” Diamandis says. How those teams will be chosen isn’t yet clear. But “it’s more subjective than objective,” he adds. Three or four years in, the top 10 teams will receive a million each. That leaves $81 million for the winners, which will be announced in 2030.

Any team that demonstrates a 20-year improvement will receive the full prize. A 15-year improvement will earn $71 million. The prize for a 10-year improvement is $61 million.

Gordon Lithgow, a researcher who studies the biology of aging at the Buck Institute, calls the announcement “fantastic.” He hopes the prize might address some of the worst bottlenecks in the field: developing and testing new interventions, measuring aging, and moving research into humans. “This field needs a vast influx of resources,” he says. Lithgow might even put his hat in the ring.

Update: this story has been updated with more details from the launch press conference

Correction: This story was updated to clarify that SOLVE FSHD is one of the funders

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