By May Ponzo

In an unprecedented gathering, over 1,000 participants and 100 speakers from around the world convened in Riyadh at the end of November for the Global Healthspan Summit. The summit, organized by the government-backed multibillion-dollar initiative to promote healthy longevity, the Hevolution Foundation, aims to channel global collaboration around one of the most pressing challenges of our era: healthy aging.

“Our mission is to expand healthy lifespan for the benefit of all. It’s not about lifespan for the sake of living longer,” said Mehmood Khan, CEO of the Hevolution Foundation, to MIT Technology Review in Spanish. “People want to live healthily as long as possible. This is a fundamental desire of every living human being that we know,” he added.

Despite advances that have extended human life, the quality of those additional years has plateaued or even decreased in certain populations. The UN predicts that the global population over 60 will double to reach 2 billion by 2050. This demographic shift underscores the urgency of enhancing collaboration and innovation to ensure not only a longer life but also a healthier one.

Khan emphasized the importance of democratizing scientific discoveries and innovations: “We are not investing, supporting, and accelerating this field for the benefit of a very few people, for the privileged. Our goal is to make available everything that results out of our investment to as many people as possible.”

To achieve this, the healthcare sector is seen as the primary ally with the greatest potential. According to the foundation, extending healthy longevity by 12 months could generate $40 trillion (36 trillion euros) in healthcare cost savings and increased productivity. Discovering new treatments to prolong life and improve health can transform healthcare from treating diseases to actively preserving well-being.

Therefore, during the summit’s closing session, Hevolution announced $40 million (36 million euros) in research grants to drive transformative advances in the field of aging science, bringing the total committed during the two-day event to nearly $100 million (92 million euros).

Among other major fund allocations, $21 million (19 million euros) was earmarked for the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, aiming to accelerate discoveries focused on therapeutic interventions targeting aging. Additionally, $16 million (14 million euros) was allocated to the American Federation for Aging Research to expand its New Investigator Awards program in Aging Biology and Geroscience, assisting new researchers in advancing knowledge of aging biology.

Competition as a driver of innovation

In a historic announcement at the summit, XPRIZE, known for designing and managing large-scale incentive competitions to address humanity’s most significant challenges, unveiled its largest competition to date: the XPRIZE Healthspan initiative. This unprecedented competition, with Hevolution as the primary and largest funder, features a monumental prize pool of $101 million (93 million euros) and challenges participating teams to pioneer a proactive and easily accessible therapeutic solution.

The main goal is to rejuvenate muscle, cognitive, and immune function by a minimum of 10 years, with a bold target of 20 years, focusing on individuals aged 65 to 80, all achieved within a one-year timeframe. Additionally, a prize of $10 million (9.2 million euros) awaits a team that demonstrates the ability to restore lost muscle function caused by facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) in one year or less.

Peter Diamandis, the visionary founder of XPRIZE, emphasized to MIT Technology Review in Spanish the crucial role of incentive competitions in driving innovation. “Large-scale contests have the power to mobilize the global community of innovators, inspiring them to tackle complex challenges that traditional approaches couldn’t address.”

Regarding the significance of the prize amount, Diamandis added: “The scale of the prize reflects the magnitude of the goal. We aim to push the boundaries of what’s possible to extend healthy human life and catalyze advances in proactive therapies.”

When asked about the ambitious one-year timeframe, Diamandis expressed confidence. “We believe in the transformative potential of concentrated efforts. By setting a one-year goal, we encourage teams to think innovatively, leveraging existing knowledge and technologies to accelerate progress.”

“The history of prizes is that it brings people’s attention and their best ideas. It incentivizes, and the big spillover is that you’re going to get an ecosystem,” Khan noted.

The crucial role of biomarkers

As the healthy longevity sector gains prominence, Apollo Health Ventures stands out as a key player with its unique venture capital and startup creation approach. “Apollo is a venture capital fund and a company focused on developing new therapies targeting the biology of aging,” explained its co-founder, Alexandra Bause. “Ultimately, we want to help develop therapeutics that enhance healthy healthspan.”

Apollo’s strategy revolves around seeking specific disease indications to quickly demonstrate clinical proof of concept, using biomarkers to define patient populations and measure the impact of treatment. “We always find a very specific disease indication where we can demonstrate a clinical proof of concept as quickly as possible,” Bause explained.

The emphasis on disease-centric development is evident in Apollo’s methodology. “The drug is developed for a disease, and through that mechanism, you really achieve an impact on other diseases, and then it expands from there.” This strategy, similar to the development of certain drugs for diabetes that were expanded to treat various conditions, highlights the potential for far-reaching implications beyond the initially targeted disease.

Discussing the crucial role of biomarkers, Bause emphasized the need for their validation in clinical trials, highlighting the importance of establishing a direct link between the impact on these biomarkers and the achievement of tangible outcomes. “What we really need is for these biomarkers to be validated in clinical trials to give people the conviction that if I’m impacting this biomarker, it really has an impact on the outcome.”

Bause foresees a paradigm shift where this validation enables trials on aging and provides reliable information about a person’s healthspan. “That in itself is going to become a platform for a lot of science to accelerate. It will revolutionize the way we currently deliver healthcare.”

The decade of healthy longevity

Closing the gap between life expectancy and healthy aging has become an enticing challenge for researchers, policymakers, and entrepreneurs. The UN has officially designated 2021-2030 as “the decade of healthy aging,” aligning global efforts to improve the quality of life alongside longevity.

“A decade of concerted global action on Healthy Ageing is urgently needed. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the seriousness of existing gaps in policies, systems and services. Already, there are more than 1 billion people aged 60 years or older, with most living in low- and middle-income countries. Many do not have access to even the basic resources necessary for a life of meaning and of dignity. Many others confront multiple barriers that prevent their full participation in society,” the UN stated in a release.

Simone Gibertoni, CEO of Clinique La Prairie, a Swiss luxury cosmetics brand specializing in advanced skin care, recognizes the potential of the longevity market. However, he emphasized that it currently remains a niche market, drawing a parallel with the early stages of the cryptocurrency market: “I think it will be like cryptocurrencies; it’s still a very niche market, a very small market.” In his view, the longevity market, when approached with a leisure-oriented perspective, promises to become a substantial and expansive market in the future. “I think it will be a huge market,” he concluded.

As a reflection on global inequality, Khan underscored the importance of the longevity market transcending its niche status: “I am a strong advocate that science should not have borders. We will have different cultures, different beliefs, different ecosystems. If a good idea is going to help solve a major health problem, as long as it is done ethically, with the right ethical approaches, we should embrace diversity.”

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