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Biotech teams are gearing up for a $101M competition to boost healthy lifespan

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The XPRIZE Healthspan competition focuses on reversing the effects of aging on muscular function, cognition and the immune system. (Illustration Courtesy of XPRIZE via YouTube)

Some of the biggest names in longevity research — and at least one Seattle biotech startup — say they’ll enter a $101 million, seven-year competition to turn back the clock on the effects of aging by at least 10 years.

XPRIZE Healthspan was unveiled today at a conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It’s the richest incentive-based technology competition ever created by the XPRIZE foundation, beating out a $100 million XPRIZE Carbon Removal contest that’s being funded by Elon Musk, the world’s richest (and most controversial) billionaire.

The top prize in the Healthspan competition will go to the team that does the best job of creating a therapy that can be administered in a year or less, leading to the restoration of at least 10 years’ worth of muscular function, cognition and immune function in people aged 65 to 80.

Peter Diamandis, the founder and executive chairman of XPRIZE, said the concept started out as a longevity prize, but the program’s planners “realized that the idea of waiting 20 years to see if someone won the prize was probably impractical.”

“We shifted from longevity to really looking at age reversal first, and then functional restoration second,” Diamandis explained. “You see, it doesn’t really matter what your epigenetic age is. Do you actually feel younger? Do you have the muscle, immune and cognition that you had 10 or 20 years ago? Because at the end of the game, that’s what really matters.”

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The guidelines for the competition are still being fine-tuned, but team can already start registering to compete via the XPRIZE Healthspan website. Two years into the program, judges would select up to 40 teams to receive $250,000 progress awards. After three or four years, up to 10 teams would each receive a $1 million award to keep going.

The grand prize would be paid out by 2030 if key milestones for functional restoration are reached. If one of the teams restores 20 years’ worth of function, that team would be eligible to win $81 million. If the best team can manage only 15 years’ worth of restoration, the prize would amount to $71 million. And if the top team achieves a functional improvement amounting to at least 10 years, but less than 15 years, the prize would be $61 million.

In addition to the $101 million prize purse, $40 million has been set aside to cover the cost of operations. Hevolution, a Saudi foundation focusing on longevity research, is providing $40 million to fund the program. Lululemon founder Chip Wilson kicked in another $26 million. Sixteen other donors, including Diamandis, made additional pledges.

Wilson is also funding a separate $10 million competition to promote the development of therapies that can restore at least 10 years’ worth of muscular function in patients with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD — a genetic disorder that affects Wilson and 870,000 others around the world.

Jamie Justice, an adjunct professor focusing on geriatric medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, is the executive director of XPRIZE Healthspan. She said the competition comes at a key moment for the study of aging and longevity.

“Our life expectancy has more than doubled in the last 100 years … but our healthy life has not increased at the same rate,” she said. “And so, currently there is about a 10-year period that we now spend at the end of life in poor health. That’s the lost decade that we need novel, innovative solutions in order to make up. And that’s what this prize is really well-poised to do.”

XPRIZE Exedutive Chairman Peter Diamandis and Jamie Justice, executive director of XPRIZE Healthspan, discuss the objectives of the $101 million competition at a conference in Saudi Arabia. (XPRIZE via YouTube)

Diamandis hoped hundreds of teams would sign up to compete. “We had 1,600 teams enter our last $100 million prize,” he noted. “I hope we can exceed that.”

Is the goal of the prize achievable? Or will XPRIZE Healthspan end up like the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, in which no team was able to win the grand prize for a commercial lunar landing by the 2018 deadline?

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Matt Kaeberlein thinks XPRIZE Healthspan is likely to be successful. He’s an affiliate professor at the University of Washington who has long studied the biological mechanism of aging, and he’s also the co-founder and CEO of a Seattle-based health tech startup called OptiSpan. Like the latest XPRIZE program, OptiSpan focuses on technologies that can help people live healthy lives for a longer time.

Kaeberlein likes what he’s seen so far about the XPRIZE program. “I had nothing to do with this prize or the way they designed it,” he said. “I was a little nervous before it came out, that this would be something crazy that didn’t make any sense. But I think they actually did a good job in the way that they put this together.”

He could see several ways the prize could be won — for example, through the use of anti-aging drugs, or supplements, or even an app-based program that could reliably coax people to adopt healthy habits relating to diet and exercise. (A drug called rapamycin is already being studied for potential life-extension properties.)

Kaeberlein doesn’t yet know if OptiSpan will pursue the prize. “I haven’t actually spent much time thinking about competing,” he told GeekWire. “I don’t know. Maybe, but probably not.”

In contrast, Mitchell Lee, the CEO and co-founder of another Seattle startup called Ora Biomedical, is definitely in. “You better believe that Ora Biomedical is running after that prize!” he said in a posting to X / Twitter.

In a follow-up email, Lee told GeekWire that he and his small team were “very excited” to hear about XPRIZE Healthspan. “We fully believe small-molecule interventions that target biological aging are the next revolution in health,” Lee said. “We developed our WormBot-AI drug discovery platform with the goal of identifying the most powerful lifespan-extending interventions.”

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Lee explained that part of Ora Biomedical’s process involves testing compounds across models for age-associated conditions and rare diseases, including neuromuscular disorders. The results are then analyzed to gauge the effects on healthy lifespan.

“The XPRIZE Healthspan is an incredible challenge that stands to revolutionize health,” Lee said. “Ora Biomedical is proud to do all we can to meet the goal of creating transformative longevity therapeutics.”

Ora Biomedical is likely to face tough competition. Several researchers in the field of aging said during today’s XPRIZE presentation that they intend to compete.

The speakers included Andrea Maier, director of the Center for Healthy Longevity at the National University of Singapore and founder of Chi Longevity; Laura Niedernhofer, director of the Institute on the Biology of Aging and Metabolism at the University of Minnesota; and Eric Verdin, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging (which has brought on Seattle bioscience pioneer Lee Hood as chief innovation officer).

Perhaps the best-known presumptive competitor is Harvard geneticist George Church, who co-founded a longevity startup called Rejuvenate Bio. Church said the XPRIZE Healthspan “can definitely be won in the timeframe we have here,” thanks to cutting-edge technologies including stem-cell reprogramming, gene editing and AI-enabled molecular analysis.

When Church was asked whether he wanted to win, he said, “Yes, as part of a team effort. The sooner, the better.”

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But Kaeberlein said he’d be wary of approaches that are overly rushed. “I would be nervous that there’d be people who try to push things too fast,” he said.



Source: Geek Wire

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