A story has been making headlines around health and longevity, involving a record-breaking Healthspan competition prize of $101 million, plus an additional $10 million, initiated by XPRIZE.
It's considered to be the largest competition in its history, challenging teams to develop therapeutics restoring muscle, cognition, and immune function by at least 10 years in individuals aged 65–80 within a year or less.
With more than 200 teams already registered, one in particular shared with Healthnews that now is the right time to translate studies investigating and aiming to increase the lifespan and healthspan of animals to human interventions.
Maier’s team races for longevity
Andrea Maier, president at the Healthy Longevity Medicine Society, told Healthnews that “In the past decades, research increased significantly and results from animal studies are now being translated to humans and into clinical practice to optimize health and healthspan across the lifespan.”
Maier’s team is one of nearly 200 registered teams so far globally participating in the seven-year XPRIZE Healthspan competition that’s setting out to change the way we age. It aims to bridge the gap between our lifespan and healthspan - the quality of our health as we age free from disease.
The competition will award $101 million, the largest in the history of XPRIZE, in funding to the team that successfully develops a therapeutic capable of restoring muscle, cognition, and immune function by a minimum of 10 years (ideally 20 years) in individuals aged 65-80 years, within a year or less.
An additional $10 million will be awarded to a team that can restore lost muscular function due to a rare disease called Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy, or FSHD, within one year. The bonus prize was initiated by one of the primary funders of the competition, Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon Athletica and SOLVE FSHD, who himself had been diagnosed with FSHD.
Maier said that her team continuously works on improving their existing interventions and developing new ones. When we asked what therapeutic they plan on entering in the competition, she said, “our intervention will be highly targeted to individual needs to accelerate precision healthy longevity medicine,” noting that the accuracy of diagnostics applied in humans is the most important part which will be the biggest challenge throughout the competition.
Setting the bar so high meant organizers were hit with a wide range of feedback from scientists and industry professionals raising concerns such as the feasibility of a one-year timeline of the treatment, cost, safety, and accessibility.
Jamie Justice, Ph.D., executive director of XPRIZE Healthspan, told Healthnews in an interview that while there were people who raised doubts, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive especially from the science side. “There's a lot of excitement from scientists,” she said adding that this is one of the “reasons we do these prizes- to build awareness, to build recognition, to incentivize funding, to create change. Those of us that have been working in this space, we know how badly it's needed.”
Maier believes that the competition was an excellent opportunity to collaborate and compete with other groups to test interventions, saying “the competition really stimulates the field to accelerate the speed of generating evidence,” she said.
On the other hand, Justice noted that they welcome negative feedback too, adding “this is supposed to be a transparent conversation and not an echo chamber of people who agree.”
What is XPRIZE Healthspan?
XPRIZE, a renowned global leader in executing large-scale incentive competitions, aims to solve humanity's grand challenges by fostering innovation. The organization has a rich history of projects that shoot for the stars targeting various sectors from space exploration to ocean conservation. However, this time, the focus is on something that has taken the spotlight by storm—aging.
The vision of XPRIZE Healthspan was born out of the recognition that while people are living longer, the quality of their health as they age has not kept pace. Peter H. Diamandis, MD, the founder and executive chairman of XPRIZE, told Healthnews that his inspiration for setting off this grand prize now was seeing how the convergence of exponential technologies like computation sensors, networks, AI, and gene and cellular therapies has enabled small teams to do extraordinary things, just in the last decade.
“I've been carefully watching this field as a venture capitalist investing some $600 million into the field,” he said adding that “we can now have the earliest understandings of why we age, perhaps how to slow it, stop it, even reverse it. And, finally,” he underscored, “the greatest gift we can offer anyone is increased health and healthspan.”
They announced the competition at the Hevolution’s Global Healthspan Summit, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The unmet need for healthy aging solutions
Despite advances in medical technology, the quality of health as we age has lagged behind with increases in life expectancy. In the U.S., there’s a 9-year gap between life expectancy and healthy life expectancy, highlighting the urgent need for innovative solutions, according to data gathered in 2020.
Diamandis shared that the economic implications of extending healthy life are staggering. He noted that experts at London Business School, Oxford, and Harvard estimate that adding just one healthy year of life could contribute $38 trillion to the global economy. Extending healthy life by 10 years could net over $300 trillion.
Age group and duration of the therapeutic
Part of the competition’s requirements is that teams must deliver their therapeutic in one year or less to adults aged 65-80 years.
When we asked Justice why they chose that timeline and age group, she said, “One year was really the maximum that we could feasibly do and have it be a prizable point,” she said, adding “if you wanna show improvement in one year, you have to look for a population that has improvements to be gained in a year.”
She said they were looking at the risk-benefit profile, meaning the first burden of proof must be that by taking the therapeutic agent, the benefit the subject will experience is likely worth the risk that may be accrued. “You have to make sure the benefit outweighs the risk,” she underscored.
Another important point was to have a population that will likely have some baseline level that can be improved upon in a one-year period based on specific measurement characteristics of that age group. “Younger is going to be harder to show improvement,” she said, noting however, she imagines “as the data comes in, we will probably end up expanding it.”
How could one year of treatment result in restoration of at least 10 years, ideally 20 years, of immune, cognition and muscle function? This question was among the first ones that piqued people’s interest. So, we asked Diamandis how he envisions this to be possible.
“What we're looking for is a therapeutic that actually has a significant step change,” he said. “We're looking for something that is significantly different than what's out there today. So the year of treatment is intended to be the timeline that enables a subject to restore function in at least three systems. It doesn't make sense to have a competition that is looking for a 10-year treatment cycle to deliver 10 years of benefit. We're trying to get outsized gains through a therapeutic in this fashion.”
Teams and registration
Diamandis explained that they expect more than 500 teams from across the world to register, but he hopes they'll get as many as a 1,000. Before the semi-finalists are chosen in 2026, teams must present their findings. Diamandis explained that there's no fixed number currently for how many teams will be chosen for the semi-finals, but he said, “it will be a function of how many teams show us that they have viable, scientifically validated solutions. They're going to have to show us both subjective and objective data that demonstrates their intent and that they have something that our judges feel is exciting enough for us to spend the time and energy to go out there and judge their entry.”
Justice explained that they are leaving the registration open, so that other teams can come in late, but they’ll have to pay an additional fee. The current registration fee is $500.
Additionally, teams are responsible for raising money for their research, recruiting subjects, and making sure they meet all the regulatory requirements in the country they choose to operate in.
Eventually, there will be 10 finalists, but Justice said they do encourage others to continue their research. “The 10 that advances to finals, each of those 10 teams will get $1 million,” she said noting how that is still not a lot of money when it comes to funding research.
“If you've ever run a trial, it's like a fraction of what you need, but it's a token of our appreciation, and they can hopefully use that as seed money as they gain other funds to help them run that trial,” Justice said.
Both Justice and Diamandis underscored that they expect teams to form and reform as the competition unfolds.
Addressing long-term risks, safety, and accessibility
One of the biggest questions raised since the launch, Justice said is the concerns with long-term risks. She said as teams report their findings “those are gonna have to be known risks.” She added that their board, donors, and benefactors will evaluate all the suggestions that come in to best address this concern.
Additionally, the judging process will also look at a variety of criteria, including safety, tolerability, accessibility, scalability long term, cost structure, and biggest benefit for the most people.
A critical concern in the development of novel therapeutics is the potential widening of health inequity gaps. Data shows that the risk of death and disability from non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, is more common in low and middle-income populations, so access and cost will be a great pillar in this therapeutic's success.
Justice and Diamandis both emphasized the importance of developing a therapeutic that is accessible to all, rather than widening the health inequity gap. Diamandis said that he believes as these therapeutics become widely available with global demand, the price will massively “demonetize and democratize,” making healthy aging accessible for everyone.
Transforming aging research
The competition encourages teams to leverage a range of technologies, including AI, epigenetics, gene therapy, and cellular medicine. By using a cross-disciplinary approach, teams can exploit the convergence of these technologies to drive breakthroughs in healthy aging. All that in just the next seven years.
Eric Verdin, MD, president and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, shared that his institution will be one of the hundreds of participants competing for the $101 million prize, but he does foresee having enormous challenges in doing this.
“It’s easy to increase the lifespan of mice and model systems in the lab, but when you go into humans, there’s an enormous barrier of safety,” he said in a panel discussion at the Healthspan Summit, noting that “effectively we’re trying to rewrite the rules of medicine how research is done and how clinical trials are done, and transform not only aging research but healthcare, and how we age.”