The hypothesis is so absurd it seems as though it popped right off the pages of a science-fiction novel. Some scientists in Palo Alto are offering a $1 million prize to anyone who can end aging. “Based on the rapid rate of biomedical breakthroughs, we believe the question is not if we can crack the aging code, but when will it happen,” says director of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize Keith Powers.
It’s a fantastical idea: curing the one thing we will all surely die of if nothing else gets us before that. I sat down with Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation and co-author of “Ending Aging,” to discuss this very topic a few days back. According to him, ending aging comes with the promise to not just stop the hands of time, but to actually reverse the clock. We could, according to him, actually choose the age we’d like to exist at for the rest of our (unnatural?) lives. But we are far off from possibly seeing this happen in our lifetime, says de Grey. “With sufficient funding we have a 50/50 chance to getting this all working within the next 25 years, but it could also happen in the next 100,” he says.
If you ask Ray Kurzweil, life extension expert, futurist and part-time adviser to Google’s somewhat stealth Calico project, we’re actually tip-toeing upon the cusp of living forever. “We’ll get to a point about 15 years from now where we’re adding more than a year every year to your life expectancy,” he told the New York Times in early 2013. He also wrote in the book he co-authored with Terry Grossman, M.D., that “Immortality is within our grasp.” That’s a bit optimistic to de Grey (the two are good friends), but he’s not surprised this prize is coming out of Silicon Valley. “Things are changing here first. We have a high density of visionaries who like to think high.”
And he believes much of what Kurzweil says is true with the right funding. “Give me large amounts of money to get the research to happen faster,” says de Grey. He then points out that Google’s Calico funds are virtually unlimited.
Whether it’s 15, 25 or even 100 years off, we need to spur a revolution in aging research, according to Joon Yun, one of the sponsors of the prize. “The aim of the prize is to catalyze that revolution,” says Yun. His personal assistant actually came up with the initial idea. She just happens to be an acquaintance of Wendy Schmidt, wife of Google’s Eric Schmidt. But it was the passing of Yun’s 68-year-old father-in-law and some conversations with his friends that got him thinking about how to take on aging as a whole.
The Palo Alto Prize is also working with a number of angel investors, venture capital firms, corporate venture arms, institutions and private foundations within Silicon Valley to create health-related incentive prize competitions in the future. This first $1 million prize comes from Yun’s own pockets.
The initial prize will be divided into two $500,000 awards. Half a million dollars will go to the first team to demonstrate that it can restore heart rate variability (HRV) to that of a young adult. The other half of the $1 million will be awarded to the first team that can extend lifespan by 50 percent. So far 11 teams from all over the world have signed up for the challenge.
All 11 teams are listed below for those interested in following along:
Doris Taylor, Ph.D.
Texas Heart Institute, Houston, TX
TEAM NAME: T.H.I. REGENERATIVE MEDICINE (approach: stem cells)
Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D.
Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, NY
TEAM NAME: CAI LAB (approach: hypothalamic regulation)
Andreas Birkenfeld, M.D.
Charite University School of Medicine, Berlin, Germany
TEAM NAME: INDY (approach: gene modification)
Jin Hyung Lee, Ph.D.
Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
TEAM NAME: LEE LAB (approach: neuromodulation)
David Mendelowitz, Ph.D.
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
TEAM NAME: MENDELOWITZ LAB (approach: oxytocin)
Scott Wolf, M.D.
Mountain View, CA
TEAM NAME: VOLTS MEDICAL (approach: inflammatory tissues)
Irving Zucker, Ph.D.
University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE
TEAM NAME: ZUCKER LAB (approach: neuromodulation)
Brian Olshansky, M.D.
University of Iowa Medical Center, Iowa City, IA
TEAM NAME: IOWA PRO-AUTONOMIA (approach: not yet public)
William Sarill, M.A.
TEAM NAME: DECO (approach: pituitary hormones)
Steven Porges, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
TEAM NAME: POLYVAGAL SCIENCE
(approach: optimizing both the left & right vagal branches)
Shin-Ichiro Imai, M.D., Ph.D.
Washington University, St. Louis, MO
TEAM NAME: IMAI LAB (approach: gene modification)
Note: It was originally reported that Yun’s nanny came up with the idea. However, it was actually his personal assistant who came up with the prize giveaway.