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A new competition to stop aging with prizes of 101 million dollars

The Express organization announced this week the biggest competition - and probably the most important - in its history. The organization will award $101 million in awards to researchers who will succeed in restoring the youth of the elderly, with a focus on the immune system, brain and muscles

A respectable old age. Illustration:
A respectable old age. Illustration:

The Express organization announced this week the biggest competition - and probably the most important - in its history. The organization will award $101 million in prizes to researchers who will succeed in restoring the youth of the elderly, with a focus on the immune system, brain and muscles.

But before I tell about the new competition, I want to bring my personal angle, as someone who worked at Express for several years - and was responsible for the research in this exact field.

Who are you, Express?

Express is one of the associations that operate relatively quietly - but has a great influence on the world. Most Israelis know the results of her actions, but they have no idea that Express is behind them. Take, for example, SpaceIL - the Israeli organization established to launch a probe to the moon. Where and why did the founders of SpaceIL become obsessed with reaching the moon?

The answer is that Express opened, together with Google, a competition called Google Lunar XPRIZE. The ultimate goal was to land a spacecraft with cameras and wheels on the moon. Express didn't care who did it, or how. Anyone - except governments - could participate in the competition. The only thing that mattered was the results. Whoever achieved the goal would earn tens of millions of dollars in prizes.

In the end, more than twenty companies were established in order to win the competition. In total, they raised hundreds of millions of dollars and trained and employed hundreds of engineers in the field of space. The contest itself generated enormous interest in space and returning to the moon, and captured the imaginations of millions of children and young students. Even if no group was able to fully accomplish the goal, Express did its part: it focused public attention on space, and promoted the entire industry in the field.

All this happened in the previous decade, and since then Express has continued to open contests with prizes that only kept getting bigger. One of the latest competitions came with a bombastic $XNUMX million prize, courtesy of Elon Musk, and set the goal for participants to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in industrial quantities. Until last week, it was the competition with the biggest prize in Express history, and probably in the entire history of innovation competitions.

But in the last week, as mentioned, the record was broken again. Now the biggest prize stands at a total of 101 million dollars. To win it you just have to stop aging and restore the elderly to their youth.

Not much, overall.

How was a competition born?

To people who first hear about express competitions, it may seem that they are based on crazy ideas and not much more than that. I admit that I was also of this opinion until 2018, when my dear friend Dr. Shai Hershkowitz invited me to take part in a study at Express. Research on what? For everything. About the future of forests, the future of work and especially - the future of aging.

Competitions worth tens of millions of dollars, it turns out, do not appear out of nowhere. Each competition is based on careful and detailed research, which may take many months. The research mainly defines the goals of the competition and how to make sure that the competitors actually meet them. Targets that are too low may lead to the opening of a competition that is very easy to win - and therefore does not really challenge the industry and lead to the development of revolutionary ideas. Goals that are too high will produce competition that is impossible to win, and may discourage researchers and entrepreneurs from entering the field.

I had the honor of leading the research team at Express on stopping aging between 2019 and 2020. As part of the research, we interviewed dozens of leading researchers in the field of aging and restoring youth. We reviewed the most advanced scientific knowledge about the aging process and analyzed the main obstacles in dealing with stopping aging. We encountered plenty of skepticism about the possibility of stopping or delaying aging, but also cautious optimism. It was clear to all researchers that there is no miracle cure that will make us all young again. At the same time, many were optimistic that we could develop treatments of limited efficacy that would extend healthy life span. May we all be given another year, two years or even five or ten years of grace, before the damned diseases of old age come knocking at the door.

As part of the research on stopping aging, we conducted a survey among experts and futurists. The answers were encouraging, at least if you are young. It was agreed that by 2035 we would be able to demonstrate the feasibility of stopping aging in laboratory conditions, and that such treatments would reach the market widely about 13 years later. That is, until 2048. Regardless of the State of Israel, if you're wondering[1].

I left Express in 2021, and it is important for me to clarify that I do not know exactly how the competition that has just started was planned, or what guided the researchers who developed it and set its goals. But if we rely on the same research I carried out at Express (and the results of which are available online for all to see), it seems that Express expects great advances in the field of stopping aging in the next twenty years - and wants to spur the scientific community and industry to realize them as quickly as possible.

For this, she uses one of the oldest tools in the world, and certainly one of the most influential: money.

How much, why and for what

What is needed to prolong life. Illustration:
What is needed to prolong life. Illustration:

And now to the issue that everyone wants the answer to: how much can you actually earn here?

The answer depends on the achievements the competitors will reach. The researchers who will participate in the competition will have to prove that they are able to restore the muscles of the body to a healthier state and improve cognitive abilities (for example, memory) and the immune system. They will have to do all this in a sample of seniors aged 65 to 80. The team that will win the biggest prize – 81 million dollars – will be the one to return these systems twenty years back in time. In other words, at the end of the process, eighty-year-olds will enjoy muscular, cognitive, and immune systems that we would expect to see in sixty-year-olds.

Sound too hard? Well, an improvement of only 15 years will put 71 million dollars in the pockets of the researchers. System rejuvenation for ten years will bring them 61 million dollars. Still a very respectable amount.

For the lovers of economics among us, and to put things in proportion, if the researchers in the competition do succeed in proving the feasibility of anti-aging treatments, it will be one of the best deals in the history of mankind. A review of only six diseases related to aging - such as lung cancer, strokes and heart disease - shows that the annual cost of treating them in 2000 was 135 billion dollars among the elderly in the United States[2]. Multiply that by ten years, and you get a savings to the taxpayer of more than a trillion dollars a year.

Oh, and also a huge reduction in human suffering experienced by hundreds of millions of people around the world. This is also important.

Want to take part in this amazing competition to stop aging, improve human life and increase your checking account? excellent! Keep reading, but keep in mind - it won't be easy.

The "how" is also important

And now for another competition. In 2006, a paper airplane flying competition was held at the Technion funded by the Red Bull company (from the slogan "Red Bull gives you wings"). Competitors had to prove their advanced aeronautical design skills by designing and folding sheets of paper to create something that would fly the greatest distance.

The winner was the student who took the sheet of paper, kivchech and rolled it into a tight ball - then threw it forward with all his strength and won the long throw category[3].

Is this the kind of people Express wants to win its contests? Yes and no.

On the one hand, it wants those who think differently, who are willing to try new ways to realize goals that all others have given up on. And perhaps most importantly, that they are not afraid of being laughed at when they do crazy and strange things while everyone else is walking in a well-trodden furrow.

On the other hand, a rolled up ball of paper doesn't help anyone at the end of the day. That brilliant student may have proven to be creative, daring and a bit of a clown, but not much can be learned from his achievement. He made no significant contribution to the fine art of paper airplane folding, or even to airplane design in general. He found the loophole in the competition rules and won on a technical level - but not in a way that really benefited anyone, except his bank manager.

And it was in a competition of Red Bull drinkers at the Technion. In Express contests, where tens of millions of dollars are at stake, you can always find tricksters, cheaters and clowns. At best, they will try to realize the goals of the competition in unconventional ways, but which do not really contribute to our ability to stop aging. In the worst case, they will simply try to cheat: do shoddy scientific experiments, falsify results, collect the money and flee to Zimbabwe.

This is another reason why Xpress invests months - and even years - in the development of each competition. Especially in the field of stopping aging, which, if we'll be honest, is full of charlatans of all kinds.

So how does Express intend to prevent the paper-ball-rollers and snake-oil peddlers from advancing in the competition?

She is not for everyone

If you want to win the eighty-one million dollars, you will have to start by submitting your idea to the competition. But before you run to the word processor to write your beautiful theories about quantum energy of the soul adversely affecting the spleen chakras, you should take into account that the judging panel will surely consist of some of the best scientists in the field. They don't want to see unsubstantiated ideas. They want studies, evidence, data that came from experiments on cells, animals and even humans. You don't have to do all of these experiments yourself, but you do have to show that the idea has potential based on previous experiments from the literature.

Have you finished the literature survey? excellent. Now you also need to detail how you intend to conduct the clinical trial that will prove that your idea can really work. You will have to specify how you intend to recruit volunteers / experimenters - people between the ages of 65 and 80, who have already begun to suffer from the harmful effects of aging - and retain them for a full year of treatment. You will need to show that you have the ability to raise funds to support such a long experiment, the cost of which can easily reach several million dollars. You will have to refer to the accepted ethical rules in the field, define the tests you will conduct to make sure there is an improvement in the relevant body systems, decide how to divide the subjects between the control group and the group that will receive the actual treatment, and much more.

In short, you need to do a clinical trial, real and serious. No discounts. And if you convince the jury of Express that you have a good idea and the necessary experience and understanding in the field of clinical trials, then you will be included in the ten groups that will advance to the stage of clinical trials - and will receive a total of ten million dollars in support from Express[4].

Clinical trials, for those who don't know, are not a simple matter. Every drug that reaches the market has to go through a series of three clinical trials, which together prove its safety and effectiveness. The results of the trials go to the FDA - the body responsible for the medical market in the United States - and after it goes over them carefully (in a process that takes many months), it decides whether to approve the distribution of the drug in the country.

Express lays me off!

I can already hear those involved in the complementary medicine professions - homeopaths, chiropractors, prickers, blood drainers with leeches and others - complaining about exclusion, brain closures and so on. The ideas have to come, after all, from everyone. How does this square with the fact that Ekprise requires competitors to go through the arduous and expensive process of clinical trials?

Well, the ideas really have to come from everyone. Express wants to open the mind as wide as possible. But when you leave your head open for too long and without control, you get inflammation of the meninges. Anyone - from Greta Thunberg to Benjamin Netanyahu - can submit their idea to the competition. But you must also filter, and the filtering is done according to the efficiency test of the solutions. This is a scientific process at its best: only the ideas that are tested in the physical reality of the world and proven to be useful, will be able to win the competition. And in order to prove effectiveness, we need tedious, long and expensive clinical trials.

I'll be the first to admit that clinical trials are far from romantic, exciting or exciting. But they work. And that, in the end, is what matters to Xpress. Fairy tales abound. Success stories - much less. To distinguish between the two you need experiments.

Ultimately, the competition is open to everyone. If you are sure that ground shark liver is the secret to stopping aging, you are welcome to submit your idea to the competition. True, you will have to convince others that it works, but this is the same level of requirements that are set for any medical treatment. And if it turns out that you are right - you will win eighty-some million dollars and international recognition. forward. This is your chance.

Not everything is perfect

Despite the enthusiasm for the competition, it must be recognized that it is not perfect. It should last seven years, while the clinical trial itself should not last more than one year. There are already various treatments today - for example, steroids - that can temporarily improve an individual's medical condition, but increase their risk of cancer and other diseases. A limit of only one year for the clinical trial can encourage the attempt to find medical treatments with an immediate beneficial effect, but limited and diminishing over time.

Another important question is how success will be measured in the experiment. In the initial comprehensive document that Xpress released, you can find a number of sample tests for each body system that the competitors are interested in improving their performance. As far as cognition and the muscular system are concerned, these tests are mainly symptomatic - that is, they focus on the person's functioning in certain tests, and not on what happens inside the body itself. Nor is it described a test of accepted-scientific markers that can be used to check a person's biological age, such as epigenetic clocks.

This may be a correct decision on the part of Express, who want to focus on parameters that are easy to understand and digest. It is also clear that you have to start somewhere - and this is indeed the greatness of the organization, which manages to raise huge sums of money to attract the best minds in the world and focus them in the field of 'killing' inventors. So it's true, the requirements of the competition will lead to an excessive focus on short-term solutions, but I hope that the jury will surely prioritize the longer-term solutions.

In conclusion - will we succeed in stopping aging?

I want to conclude this column with three predictions.

The first is about the success in the competition itself. Will it end in finding a treatment that will improve the overall health of the elderly, and in effect turn back the clock hands of their bodies?

probably not.

It is important to look reality in the eyes. As of today, we still do not understand the aging process in Burio, and certainly there is no comprehensive treatment for it. The best way known to us today to delay the onset of aging diseases is maintaining a healthy lifestyle: eating right, exercising and sleeping regularly. Since these 'treatments' are based on human willpower on the one hand, and on the circumstances that the world imposes on us on the other hand, it is very difficult to provide them to the entire population. There are also ideas for different treatments - metformin, filtering old cells from the tissues, transfusions of young blood and much more. But none of them have yet been proven, and it is not clear what their level of effectiveness will be in a clinical trial.

All this is not to say that there is no chance that some crazy entrepreneur will be able to win the competition. I just estimate that the chance of that is not high. If you cornered me, I'd bet only thirty percent on success. And the truth? A hundred million dollars is pocket money to allow such a chance of success, whose implications for the economy easily reach trillions of dollars a year.

And here's another disclaimer for the prediction: the odds are high that someone will be declared the winner of the contest anyway. SpaceIL also received a prize in the competition to reach the moon even though they did not fulfill all the conditions defined for them - for example, to land the space vehicle in its entirety. Because that's how public competitions work: in a good story, someone has to win in the end. It is simply not clear whether the invention will really do what is expected of it.

The second prediction is that all these reservations do not change anything, because the competition will still achieve what it is really supposed to achieve. Just like the competition to reach the moon: no competitor was able to meet all the conditions, but the entire space industry got a big boost thanks to the competition. In the same way, the very announcement of the competition to extend the healthy life span will promote this industry and attract to it outstanding researchers and a new generation of students from all fields. When the awards are presented in seven years, the final shot will not be heard - but an opening shot for the great and real race to stop aging.

And the third - and most optimistic - prediction is that we will indeed succeed in stopping aging, and it is certainly possible that this will happen during the readers' lifetimes.

Why am I so optimistic? Mainly because of the dizzying progress we are seeing these days in the field of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence helps us develop more advanced medical models and better understand the body's biological systems. They help in the development and design of proteins and enzymes that can affect individual cells and entire tissues. They have already demonstrated capabilities of building new materials with unique and exciting properties. In short, artificial intelligence is going to catapult all scientific fields forward, and medicine will not be left behind. At some point we will be able to stop aging, and when it happens - it will also happen thanks to Xpress and the public attention it attracted to this field, even at a time when few thought about it seriously.

for life!

[1] The full results of the survey can be found in the report The Future of Longevity released by Express in 2019




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