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

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.

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